Thursday, April 04, 2013

The UFW's Anti-Immigrant Legacy: Reinventing Cesar Chavez

Justin Feldman
April 3, 2013.

Last Sunday was Cesar Chavez’s birthday. The United Farm Workers, founded by Chavez in 1962, marked the occasion by organizing five pro-immigration reform marches throughout California. Other groups organized Cesar Chavez Day events in San Antonio and Phoenix that shared the pro-immigration reform theme. The irony is that during most of his tenure with the UFW, Chavez was virulently anti-immigrant in his public and private lives. He led his union to campaign for the deportation of undocumented workers and, at times, even green card holders became targets.

Over the last couple of decades, the racist, xenophobic right has invoked Chavez’s unsavory history with immigration in their efforts to delegitimize the immigrant rights movement. Us leftists have typically come to his defense. We do need heroes after all. Of the countless people of color who have stood up for workers, all but a few have been written out of history. But even more than our need for heroes, we need a critical analysis of the past that can inform our current and future organizing.

The latest Chavez apologism comes from an article on Latino Rebels, which draws on excerpts from a few books addressing the union leader’s views on immigration. The author concludes that Chavez only opposed immigrants brought in as scabs during strikes, that he wasn’t responsible for the UFW’s Minutemen-like patrolling of the Arizona-Mexico border, and that he ultimately came to support immigrant rights in 1974 when he outlined his views in a letter to the San Francisco Examiner. But Frank Bardacke’s book Trampling Out the Vintage (reviewed in Counterpunch last year by Saul Landau) documents Cesar Chavez’s aversion to all undocumented immigrants, not just strikebreakers, and pursuit of pro-deportation campaigns that can only be described as vicious.

Cesar Chavez began anti-immigrant campaigning during a strike at the Guimarra Vineyards in 1967. Some of the strikebreakers were undocumented. Others were green card holders who were prohibited from working at struck businesses under existing regulations. As part of the strike campaign, Chavez led a march of 150 union supporters to a federal building in Bakersfield to demand that the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrest non-citizen workers. The INS soon conducted a series of raids in the area, arresting 500 undocumented workers, 62 of whom were employed by Guimarra.

In May of 1974, Chavez proposed the “Campaign Against Illegals”. In a memo sent to all UFW offices, Chavez informed staff of “the beginning of a MASSIVE CAMPAIGN to get the recent flood of illegals out of California… We consider this campaign to be even more important than the strike, second only to the boycott. If we can get the illegals out of California, we will win the strike overnight” (emphasis in original).

On May 20, Chavez presented the Campaign Against Illegals to the UFW’s executive board. Bardacke notes that the meeting’s minutes indicated no dissent from board members. At Chavez’s direction, the UFW’s national headquarters distributed forms to its offices in California, Florida, and Arizona that staff were to use for reporting undocumented workers to the INS. Fresno’s border patrol alone received more than 2,600 names from the UFW, though it only arrested 195 of them. Chavez also urged supporters to call their Congressman demanding more INS enforcement, then testified before Congress urging the same, and also gathered 40,000 signatures in a related petition drive.

Chavez’s correspondence with UFW staffer Liza Hirsch in June of 1974 reveals that his disdain for undocumented immigrants went beyond his perception of them as strikebreakers. Hirsch presented a flyer to Chavez’s approval with Spanish text saying “the union isn’t against illegals if they don’t work where there is a strike”. In a letter dated June 25, Chavez writes that the flyer is “a bunch of shit. We’re against illegals no matter where they work because if they’re not breaking the strike they’re taking our jobs.”

Among the most infamous events of the UFW’s history was the so-called “wet line”. During a strike of lemon pickers led by Cesar Chavez’s cousin Manuel, the union was losing due to some strategic errors as well as a court injunction preventing workers from picketing near the growers. Manuel switched tactics and set up a paid vigilante border patrol group of several hundreds of men to intercept potential scabs coming in from Mexico. There are many stories of violence against border crossers, but only two patrol members were charged with assault. It is unclear how involved Cesar Chavez was in the patrol. He clearly knew it was happening, as the UFW published accounts in its newspaper and Chavez visited Yuma at least once during this period. In fact, Chavez had first proposed the idea of using “civil disobedience” to stop border crossers during a strike in 1968. In 1979, he told a New York Times reporter, “We had a wet line, it cost us a lot of money, and we stopped a lot of illegals… If [violence] happened, I know nothing about it.”

Read the rest here.
Comment: I read this article last night and found myself absolutely conflicted about the legacy of Cesar Chávez.

In the past I have admired Chávez for the role he played in the UFW and for fighting against unfair labor practices and the US government's easy alliance with agribusiness.

I know that no activist anywhere can be held accountable for a movement's foibles and missteps but it is unthinkable that Chávez would align himself with racist elements to malign undocumented workers in the 70s through the 80s.

Even the terminology he used (wetbacks and wetline) to refer to undocumented workers from Mexico and beyond is unacceptable despite the time from which it emanates.

That said it is important to note that Chávez is a formative driver of Chicano/a identity and that cannot be dismissed.  I suspect that his views on undocumented workers are not widely supported in the Mexican American community of today - I simply don't know.

Nonetheless, I cannot but retract a great deal of my admiration for the legacy of Chávez knowing that he conspired with the US government to arrest undocumented workers and even patrolled border areas like the racist "Minutemen" in Arizona and elsewhere.

I have read that Chávez was an admirer of Gandhi but I fail to see how such xenophobic actions against undocumented workers makes him an advocate of the Mahatma's way.

I am also aware that racist rightist elements in the US take joy in making this information about Chávez's past and character known.  This, however, is not my point since I do not seek to malign him or his admirers.

Like Feldman above I think it important to know the full complexity of those we claim as heroes in the collective struggle toward freedom.

It is for this same reason that this blog has not celebrated Nelson Mandela as an untouchable icon of black struggle toward freedom in South Africa.

Still, both Chávez and Mandela have made significant contributions to the collective struggle toward freedom nonetheless - and that should be recognized but tempered by their misgivings, oversights, and failures too.

Inside of this necessary balance I am conflicted to know this largely glossed over aspect of Cesar Chávez's legacy.


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