Honoring César Chávez


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César Chávez ranks with Martin Luther King Jr. in his efforts to secure agricultural laborers’ rights.

His pacifist leadership achieved wage increases for farm workers and better field-sanitation, conditions, and he united much of the nation on a multicultural, multi-class platform.

After his death in 1993, César Chávez Day was initiated to celebrate his activism and to promote a day of widespread community service. At the UI, the Association of Latinos Moving Ahead will host a potluck of ethnic food, and Latin American history Assistant Professor Omar Valerio-Jiménez will speak in honor of the distinguished public figure at 6 p.m. today. The free event will convene in the Latino Native American Cultural Center.

“I grew up on stories about how much Chávez helped out my family,” said Margaret Weirich, the president of the UI Latino Law Students Association. “[My] relatives were fruit pickers in the fields, and it was a really big deal when the [short-handled hoes] were banished … My uncles ruined their backs using this tiny little machine.”

Weirich’s mother also experienced the landmark grape boycott, a struggle that began in 1965 and lasted more than five years. Up until this point, the Delano, Calif., grape pickers, mostly immigrants, toiled under egregious conditions including poor wages, and lack of fresh water, toilets, and protection from planes spraying pesticides on the fields.

“Chávez motivated so many people to stand up for their labor rights,” Weirich said.

Inspired by Gandhi, Chávez organized peaceful protests, marches, and fasts to eventually persuade 14 million Americans to abstain from consuming nonunion grapes. This public pressure proved to be effective, and in 1969, the Delano grape growers and the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee signed a historic contract.

“[Chávez’] work is very relevant to the [UI] law school, which does a lot of pro bono work in association with labor rights,” said Weirich, a second-year law student. “You have things like Postville, where the work he did for promoting labor rights is really important.”

In May 2008, federal officials charged into Postville to arrest 389 illegal workers at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse, which was once a center of commerce in northeastern Iowa. The raid at the kosher meatpacking plant destroyed several businesses, crippled many Midwest livestock farmers who supplied the plant, and cut the population nearly in half.

“One thing I hope is that people want to educate themselves on the immigration issue,” Valerio-Jiménez said. “In Iowa … [immigrants are] largely the ones producing our food.”

He disagrees with the government’s proposed Guest Worker Program, reminiscent of the controversial Bracero Program which lasted from 1942 until 1964. The proposed Guest Worker Program would employ immigrant laborers for a few years with substandard residency rights, then send them back home without the opportunity to obtain U.S. citizenship.

“There is a pattern in American history of employing immigrants to do the most backbreaking work because not many Americans are willing to do the work, and so there’s a niche to fill,” Valerio-Jiménez said. “Then, eventually, they move up or move out.”

He argued that a minority group only treads water if society continues to disenfranchise it.

“Chávez found political representation to be important for these immigrant laborers,” Valerio-Jiménez said. “Only then can they rise up in society and also benefit it.”

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