Make Cesar Chavez Great Again

Saturday is Cesar Chavez Day. The legendary co-founder of the United Farm Workers earned his place in the pantheon of American liberalism as a union organizer, a civil rights activist, and a cultural icon. People refused to buy table grapes for years after he led a successful boycott in exchange for better working conditions for migrant farmworkers. Schools bear his name. He’s a hero among generations of Latinos and Chicanos.

As historians Eric Foner and John A. Garrity tell it, Chavez dedicated his life to changing “wretched migrant camps, corrupt labor contractors, meager wages for backbreaking work, and bitter racism.” Noble goals all.

And yet that isn’t the whole story.  

Chavez was a vehement immigration hawk, skeptical of unchecked legal immigration and stridently opposed to illegal immigration. He railed against porous borders, had no patience for progressive pieties, and rejected La Raza as manifestly racist.

The multicultural Left prefers to repress the uncomfortable facts about Chavez. Even his son, Paul, struggles to reconcile the canonized version of Cesar Chavez with the flesh and blood pro-immigration enforcement agitator that was his father. Paul Chavez claims even though his father opposed illegal immigrants as strikebreakers, Chavez accepted illegal immigrants as union members.

“It’s always been, ‘You represent who works in the fields.’ And so, no, there never has been and never will be” the need for legal residency, the younger Chavez told Voice of America News this month.

Is that so? How would the real Cesar Chavez respond to his son’s claim that he embraced illegals with open arms, even in the fields?

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate. In response to a leaflet drafted by progressive UFW organizers stating “the union isn’t against illegals if they don’t work where there is a strike,” Chavez wrote:

The first leaflet from Delano 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. They can’t be farting around like this in Delano just because they’re afraid of being criticized. Get on them about it.

In short, the son’s memory of the father does not square with reality.

Chavez was unflinching in his view of illegal immigration, anticipating and swatting aside the present-day clichés of the open-borders Left. In The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, Miriam Pawel recounts an argument between Chavez and UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta. She objected to Chavez’s vernacular laden with “wetback” and “illegal”—terms he helped put into the mainstream of public discourse.

“The people themselves aren’t illegal,” Huerta said. “The action of being in this country maybe is illegal.”

“No, a spade’s a spade,” Chavez shot back. “You guys get these hang-ups. Goddamn it, how do we build a union? They’re wets, you know. They’re wets, and let’s go after them.”

Chavez orchestrated the Illegals Campaign, which the Los Angeles Times described as “a central piece of strategy which saw the UFW direct members to report the presence of undocumented immigrants in the fields and turn them in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the agency which preceded Customs and Border Protection (CBP).” Chavez instructed the campaign’s field coordinator to “distribute forms printed in triplicate to all union offices and directed staff members to document the presence of illegal immigrants in the fields and report them to the INS.”

In triplicate—Chavez was as thorough as he was hawkish.

Just in Fresno, California, Chavez’s campaign identified and reported 2,200 illegal immigrants to the INS in 1974 alone. In fact, Chavez even paid off Mexican border patrol agents to stop would-be illegal immigrants from entering the United States. A spade’s a spade.

As illustrated by his reactions to Huerta’s concerns over political correctness and his furious opposition to illegal immigrants overall, Chavez suffered no objections to his hawkish methods—including dissent within UFW. Pawel writes, “Chavez reacted scornfully to criticism of the Illegals Campaign, particularly from his liberal allies.”

The petulant activists of today—looking at you, Lizbeth Mateo—would find themselves at odds with Chavez and his wing of the UFW. It’s possible they would even find themselves subject to a roundup and as they were gift-wrapped for border patrol agents by Chavez’s cousin, Manuel.

But acknowledging this uncomfortable truth today would mean the shattering of a fragile worldview. Pawel writes:

When Chicano activist Bert Corona staged a protest against the wet line, Chavez directed Jerry Cohen to retaliate with an investigation of the funding of Corona’s group. The National Lawyers Guild refused to allow summer interns to participate in the Illegals Campaign, and Chavez angrily broke ties and rejected the interns. . . . [Chavez] campaigned against guest workers in 1959, he again charged that immigrants were taking jobs away from local workers.

“If we can get the illegals out of California,” Chavez would say, “we will win the strike overnight.” Does that sound like a man who didn’t value the salience of the rule of law?

Chavez’s rage against unfettered immigration didn’t wane. In fact, we can track its upward trajectory. In 1969, Chavez testified before Congress that even though UFW organizers had given INS officials “stacks and stacks of information” on illegal immigrants, the authorities failed to deport them. “This is why we are forced to boycott: We have had no enforcement by the Border Patrol,” Chavez said.

Later, following the implementation of the Illegals Program and frustrated with more immigration enforcement failures, Chavez testified before Congress again in 1979:

It is apparent that when the farmworkers strike and their strike is successful, the employers go to Mexico and have unlimited, unrestricted use of illegal alien strikebreakers to break the strike. And, for over 30 years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has looked the other way and assisted in the strikebreaking.

Progressives have canonized a laughably angelic version of Chavez, utterly divorced from his passionate opposition to unregulated immigration and illegal immigrants (and also without mention of the strange spiral into cultism that stained the later years of his life).

When Chavez testified before Congress for the last time in 1979, low-wage workers were paid more at that time than they were in 2013, while the lion’s share of wage increases since 1979 have gone to the top-paid workers—to the people who exploit cheap immigrant labor, the kind who hired illegal immigrants as strikebreakers against Chavez’s warnings against “wretched migrant camps, corrupt labor contractors,” and who offered “meager wages for backbreaking work.”

If there is one thing the progressives can be proud of this Cesar Chavez Day, it’s knowing that they have all but annihilated whatever tangible aspect of Chavez’s legacy remains. By the nature of the public policy they endorse, immigrant rights activists and multiculturalists have effectively undone everything Chavez fought for. Perhaps future generations will know the full story, and do better to honor the man’s life and work. Happy Cesar Chavez Day.

Photo credit: Cathy Murphy/Getty Images

About Pedro Gonzalez

Pedro Gonzalez is assistant editor of American Greatness and a Mount Vernon Fellow of the Center for American Greatness.

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