American born and raised, Cesar Chavez, the founder of the United Farm Workers Union, is well-known for his efforts on behalf of farm workers. He fought for many years to ensure their safe working conditions, decent housing and fair wages. (He was also one of the first to raise consumer awareness of pesticides on – and in – fruit and produce.)
It has to be said that Chavez was against illegal immigration from Mexico. Constant influx of more and more workers eager to work for next to nothing was sabotaging his ability to negotiate fair treatment and fair wages for American farm workers.
But times change. From today’s perspective the plight of American farm workers was – and is – less tragic than the exploitation of “illegal” farm workers in the United States. The majority of the “illegal” farm workers came here to escape poverty or abuse. Once in the United States they’ve come to realize that their lack of legal status, lack of education and / or inability to speak English make them prime targets for exploitation.
No matter what’s your position on illegal immigration, the fact remains that the abundance of affordable fruit and produce on our tables is in a large part due to the underpaid labor of “illegal” farm workers. Illegal immigration is just that: illegal, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all reaping benefits of it. It seems very unfair (un-American!) that we have – and are – benefiting from exploiting those who came here in pursuit of their American Dream and instead of evening the score and giving them the opportunity to call the United States their home at last, we are focusing on mass-deportations. We used the “illegals” in many cases for years and years and now we’re throwing them out WITHOUT compensation. United States of America or the law of the jungle? Did it ever occur to anyone in the Legislative Branch that the “illegal” farm workers earned their right to be here?…. Law is supposed to be tempered by compassion. Shouldn’t American law consider human rights of “illegal” farm workers? (I’m a journalist not an attorney so please correct me if I’m wrong: I believe there is a humanitarian exception for illegal immigrants who have fallen victim of sexual exploitation. Is there no exception for the many other forms of exploitation?)
Why this digression on Cesar Chavez birthday? Because Cesar Chavez dedicated his life to getting social justice for farm workers. I can’t imagine that had he lived today, he would have condoned the morally repugnant exploitation and prosecution of “illegal” farm workers in the United States, today. (There is a reason why he is remembered along with other American social justice icons such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., etc.)
(If you disagree, wait: once all the “illegal” farm workers are deported and the wall is up, we’ll be showing our children pictures of fruit and vegetables in books because there either won’t be any on the market anymore or a single tomato will cost $100!)
In the meantime in Washington D.C., for the 10th year in the row, the Republicans didn’t co-sponsor U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’ and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s resolution to honor Cesar Chavez’ life and legacy. The Mayor of Los Angeles, on the other hand, honored the important date by saying:
“The legacy of Cesar Chavez is alive in Los Angeles, and we see it in the values of our people — fighting for the safety and dignity of our immigrant brothers and sisters, showing up by the hundreds of thousands to stand for basic human rights, lending their voices to the struggle to end poverty and pay working men and women what they deserve. On this day set aside to honor a great leader and humanitarian , I remember all that he stood for and reaffirm the urgency of putting the principles of integrity, sacrifice, humility, and service at the center of everything we do.”
On the occasion of his 90th birthday let me quote two of Cesar Chavez’ famous quotes.
One for us all:
“When the man who feeds the world by toiling in the fields is himself deprived of the basic rights of feeding, sheltering, and caring for his own family, the whole community of man is sick.”
And one for the leaders of our Country:
“History will judge societies and governments — and their institutions — not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.”