Cesar Chavez Memorial Paintin

(Salina Canizales/Flickr)

“We need a cultural revolution. And we need a cultural revolution among ourselves
not only in art but also in the realm of the spirit.”

—Cesar E. Chavez (1927-1993)

On Easter Sunday, 1966, Cesar Chavez and a cadre of renegade Catholic priests, nuns, rabbis, and Protestant ministers converged on the steps of California’s capitol building in Sacramento. Chavez, a life-long Democrat, was adept at organizing across lines of religion and culture, including evangelicals and Pentecostals.  In fact, the events at the state capitol included an ecumenical religious mass. Counted among the ten thousand in attendance were Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and humanists, as well as Christians of many varieties. Starting three weeks earlier, Chavez had led an original group of seventy women and men who embarked upon a three hundred mile walk from central California, what they called a “peregrination,” in the spirit of both “penance,” and “revolution.” Upon arrival, the number of pilgrims had burgeoned to several hundred.

The procession was led from the beginning by a banner emblazoned with an image that fused Our Lady of Guadalupe with the totem of Chavez’s crusade—a black eagle against a crimson background. For spectators, this imagery blurred the boundary between the sacred and the profane, insofar as the primary emblem of Mexican Catholicism melded into the symbolism of the hybrid religiosity characterizing what soon became known as La Causa, or the Cause, representing the totality of Chavez’s social justice struggles; but principally the United Farm Workers Union (UFW), which he founded in 1962. By 1966 he declared: “And if this spirit grows within the farm labor movement, one day we can use the force that we have to help correct a lot of things that are wrong in this society.”

He brought the world to Delano—a rural central California agricultural backwater—via the struggle to transform global labor relations in order to empower workers. There, in March 1968, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy broke bread with Chavez in a mass terminating the labor leader’s “love fast”; twenty-five days in duration, he began depriving himself of food and drink (save for water) the month before, on Valentine’s Day.

From this unlikely political center, in the heart of the Golden State, he exposed the nation’s dirty little secret: the mistreatment of migrant farm workers, mostly Mexican American and Filipino. Chavez is well-remembered for laying bare the working and living conditions of these American agricultural laborers in front of an international audience. This publicity catalyzed and fueled the Chicana and Chicano civil rights movement centered in Los Angeles. Today, Mexican Americans constitute over thirty percent of California’s radically diverse population. Chavez represented this community, and many others.

Mass global media exposure rendered Chavez’s impact possible. On November 26, 1960, two days after Thanksgiving, Edward R. Murrow aired a primetime television documentary called Harvest of Shame. Murrow’s piece shed an international light on the migrant California laborers. Shortly after Americans had digested an annual feast of grace, their television sets exposed horrors of the place from whence their food came, conditions compared unfavorably to chattel slavery and sharecropping. One central California sheriff expressed this reality as follows: “We protect our farmers here in Kern County. They are our best people. They are always with us. They keep the country going … But the Mexicans are trash. They have no standard of living. We herd them like pigs.”

In response to these realities, and mindful that in the United States God is the ultimate political authority, Chavez recognized the urgency for a sacred narrative to authorize his political actions. That is, racism originates in a modern mythology of a human hierarchy wherein people of color occupy the lowest rungs. Chavez recognized that this was a fiction, but one that was as old as time—or at least as old as the age of European Imperialism when crown and church justified enslavement of black and brown peoples based on an assertion of a natural—and biblical—order of creation. Hence, Chavez sought to upend this lie, confronting and undoing the toxic mix of racism and religion. To attain rhetorical suasion, then, he needed to tell a cosmic story deeply holy with God as protagonist—a myth. As he explains it, his religious narrative arose from “a deep conviction that we can communicate to people, either those who are for us or against us, faster and more effective spiritually than we can in any other way.” This technology of communication and organization seems to have escaped the imagination of today’s political left, who cede the spiritual terrain to the ranks of the extreme right, who claim it for reactionary projects.

On the other hand, Chavez created a religious bricolage, embracing and collapsing many sacred agendas into what became a moral crusade. His program consisted of humans sacrificing for the greater good more so than on any other particular religious mandate or single ideal. La Causa was delineated by the imperatives of Mexican Catholic sacrifice, Gandhian non-violence, a Franciscan vow of poverty, and a Baptistic optimism mimicking Martin Luther King in the service of social justice. His was a diverse spirituality deeply embedded in and reflective of the cultural pluralism that is the California mosaic and mystique. There at the edge of the continent, where the desert meets the infinite expanse of the sea, the occasion for reinvention swells as if an ocean wave crashing onto the shore, sweeping away the old while clearing space for the new.

Chavez dreamed a California dream.

Alta California, Mexico/New Spain

California has always been diverse. Five hundred indigenous tribes who spoke three hundred dialects of one hundred languages originally occupied the territory that is now California. In the sixteenth century, envoys from the Spanish Crown explored and claimed the land. Divided into two regions, Alta and Baja, the former included the modern American states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, western Colorado and southwestern Wyoming. In 1821 Mexico claimed the region following the anti-colonial revolution, which won the country sovereignty. In 1846, manifesting their perceived God-given destiny, Americans invaded and occupied Alta California in a military campaign that ended with the ceding of the territory to the United States as outlined by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848. (On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Northern California.) According to the terms of the treaty, Mexicans in Alta California were accorded full rights of U.S. citizenship. Yet, by the time California became a U.S. state in 1850, Mexicans of all classes were being systematically dispossessed of their property, concentrated in ethnic ghettos or barrios, and relegated to the lowest paid and most difficult work, mostly migrant agricultural labor.  

The baleful economic and political disenfranchisement of Mexican Americans was underwritten in scholarship. A new school of California historians perpetuated myths of Mexicans as naturally inferior. Consider the dehumanizing statements by Hubert Howe Bancroft who positioned Mexicans as “halfway between savagism and civilization … a race halfway between the proud Castilian and the lowly root-digger of the Coast Range Valleys.” This ideology justified the near enslavement of Mexicans and circulated as if it were a gospel of nature, a social fact that exists outside of language insofar as it comes from God.

Chavez engaged this rhetoric with a discourse equally transcendent in its claims to truth. On Mexican Independence Day, September 16, 1965, he called a meeting of the fledgling UFW to vote on whether or not to join the Filipino workers who had gone out on strike against table grape growers. This vote was precipitated by the lapse of the guest worker program that provided contracted labor from Mexico, or the Bracero program, against which Chavez had long campaigned. Workers gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Delano amidst icons of Catholicism and the UFW; they voted overwhelmingly to join the strike.

The strike was settled five years later, in 1970, with the workers declaring victory. The year before Chavez had read a prepared statement on International Boycott Day that became foundational for La Causa, which continued even after the strike had ceased:

We have been farm workers for hundreds of years … Mexicans, Filipinos, Africans, and others, our ancestors were among those who founded this land and tamed its natural wilderness. But we are still pilgrims on this land, and we are pioneers who blaze a trail out of the wilderness of hunger and deprivation that we have suffered even as our ancestors did … If this road we chart … changes the social order that relegates us to the bottom of society, then in our wake will follow thousands of American farm workers. Our example will make them free. 

Chavez’s political theology connected the heavens to the earth, the people to the land, and righteousness to social justice. He used keywords found in all traditions in order to fragment and reassemble them into a fresh lexicon of God wedded to causes at once local and global. 

Today the Golden State is home to what is perhaps the most diverse population in the U.S. if not the world. As such, it is de facto a living experiment in multiculturalism, a virtual petri dish hosting the culturing of macro organisms from everywhere. In California, the motto attains new urgency: e pluribus unum, from out of the many comes one. This is a mystical incantation uttered by social alchemists across space and time. But, few have understood it more than Cesar Chavez did, in Delano.

Luis D. León is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Denver.