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Cesar Chavez and His Movement: The Religious Perspective
At first, I didn’t know much about Cesar Chavez and his cause to help farmers. As I started reading several of his speeches, I discovered a common ground. During most of his speeches and strikes, Cesar frequently made references to the teachings of the Catholic Church. My research relates to why Chavez promoted his Catholic faith in his speeches, and what type of impact did it have on the migrant farm workers and the Catholic Church.
Cesar Chavez and His Motivation for Justice
Cesar Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, in Yuma Arizona. His family lived in a small farm that was granted down to the family by his grandfather.1 Trying to survive the Great Depression, the family had to migrate because they were unable to pay their property taxes. “The loss of land planted the seed of rebelliousness that would one day grow into Cesar Chavez’s willingness to protest against injustice to farm workers.”2 However, the main resentment occurred during school. Born speaking the Spanish language, the school reminded him he was an outsider:
In class one of my biggest problems was the language. Of course, we bitterly resented not being able to speak Spanish, but they insisted that we had to learn English. They said that if we were American, then
we should speak the language, and if we wanted to speak Spanish, we should go back to Mexico.
When we spoke Spanish, the teacher swooped down on us. I remember the ruler whistling through the air as its edge came down sharply across my knuckles. It really hurt. Even out in the playground, speaking Spanish brought punishment.3
This type of treatment was the typical to Mexican-American immigrants and migrants. From a personal standpoint, my grandmother would tell me similar stories of how she was ridiculed by the teachers and the students when she emigrated from Mexico to the United States during the 1930s. Like Cesar Chavez, my grandmother never received a formal education. Her large family couldn’t afford sending everyone to school. There wasn’t enough money, and she was forced to drop out of school in order to help maintain the house along with her sisters while her brothers were out working in the cotton fields.
This form of “Americanization” to speak English was forced upon many foreigners. For Chavez, however, this treatment didn’t just stay in the schools; it followed him everywhere he went as he remembers being forced to sit in segregated sections in movie theaters and being denied service in restaurants.4 All these experiences, from racial discrimination
to the harsh migrant life, would later be the planting seeds to build a union dedicated to eliminating those injustices.
The American Catholic Church was not too optimistic about Mexican-Americans either. The Catholic Church and the culture of Mexican Americans are very different. In Jay Dolan’s book, Mexican Americans and the Catholic Church: 1900-1965, “Hispanics bring to the Catholic Church spiritual and communal traditions which are very different from those of other Catholics whose origins lie in Anglo-Saxon and Eastern European cultures. The challenges presented to the United States Church by the large numbers of Hispanics will be formidable.”5 Mexican Americans has been criticized for their “faith expressions” that did not always reflect official American Catholic Church teachings and regulations.6
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However, this was not the case with the entire Catholic Church. When Chavez moved to San Jose, California in 1952, he met a Roman Catholic priest who would dramatically impact his life.7 Father Donald McDonnell became acquainted with Chavez, and later began teaching Chavez about social justice and labor movements among farm workers. McDonnell introduced encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII that outlined the church’s support for workers who protests against injustices. These new ideas shared with Chavez sparked the development of his own personal
philosophy that would inspire him to develop his own crusade to help farm workers.8
The Philosophy behind Cesar Chavez
Chavez’s intellectual and moral basis for organizing farm workers came from not only from Father McDonnell but from studying a variety of subjects who were great leaders in history. However, he was particularly influenced by Mohandas Gandhi. It was through Gandhi that Chavez was inspired to introduce his own philosophy of nonviolence.9 After gaining vital experience from working as an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), Chavez decided to move to Delano, California in 1962 to start his own union devoted to farm workers.
His first step in organizing was to learn the physical makeup of Delano and get acquainted with the farmers. Then, he mapped out towns between Arvin and Stockton and visited each one of them over the course of six months. When he saw workers in the fields, he approached them to see if they were interested in joining a union. In 1962, Chavez convinced enough farmers to form a union known as the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). The group would change its name several times, finally settling on the United Farm Workers (UFW).10 However, it was not an easy task forming an organization. In 1965, he delivered a speech at a
meeting of the California Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Fresno talking about how difficult it was to establish the NFWA. He spoke about the importance of the number of people in the union and the importance of outside help.11
Chavez found it useful to promote his newly established union to a nonviolent committee such as the SNCC to prove to the nation that this farmers union was a nonviolent one. However, nonviolence tactics did not attract all the support he needed, especially when the opposition resulted in violence. In 1966, two thousand Filipino farmers of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) protested over receiving lower salaries than braceros. Braceros are temporary workers from Mexico that are recruited by the grower industries. Larry Itiong, the head of the AWOC asked Chavez and the UFW to strike against grape growers. Chavez agreed to strike but the moment they began to hit the picket lines, the growers fired guns at the strikers. Chavez recalled: “in a period of seven days we had fourteen incidents where they actually fired a gun at the strikers.” 12
Chavez quickly realized the importance of outside help after the grape strike. Chavez thought that the strike would be only against the growers but he was wrong. He later recalled:
Within twenty-four hours from the movement that we had hit the picket lines, the City Council had passed a resolution condemning the Red ties. The High School Board and the Elementary School Board had done the same thing. And the Chamber of Commerce did it also with the exception that their statement was a lot more wordy. And three days later when everything seemed to be against us the Church had not yet acted…At that point we were cut off completely. We had no friends in Delano except for the workers. We had no money…Things looked very bad for us.13
Chavez knew that if he wanted to rebound from this negativity, he would need support from the Catholic Church. Since most of his UFW was composed of Mexican Catholics, the blessings of the Church would legitimize the union and unite their followers.14 However, the Catholic Church was not really helping his cause at first, but he was getting help from the California Migrant Ministry (CMM). At first Cesar was suspicious of the CMM because they were Protestant, but he later admired them for their help and condemned the Catholic Church for not helping his cause for justice. In his speech “The Mexican American and
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the Church,” he thanks the entirety of the Church, not the Catholic Church, for the help with the Delano grape strike.
At about that same time, we began to run into the California Migrant Ministry in the camps and field. They were about the only ones there, and a lot of us were very suspicious, since we were Catholics and they were Protestants. However, they had developed a very clear conception of the Church. It was called to serve, to be at the mercy of the poor, and not to try to use them. After a while this made a lot of sense to us, and we began to find ourselves working side by side with them. In fact, it forced us to raise the question why our Church was not doing the same.15
It became obvious that the Protestant groups were deeply involved with Chavez and his cause. Chavez and the farm workers wanted the church to walk with them in their struggle for justice. Chavez wanted the Catholic Church to serve the farmers because their cause for justice was legitimate:
What do we want the Church to do? We don’t ask for more cathedrals. We don’t ask for bigger churches or fine gifts. We ask
for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the Church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don’t’ ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don’t ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.16
This was a good strategy for Chavez since it placed the Catholic Church in a position that if they don’t help the farmers, the Church would risk getting criticized for helping the oppressors of the farmers. He finally got the help he was looking for. In 1966, Chavez planned to enter the DiGiorgio grape property in order to retrieve personal belongings left at the camp by the farmers. Chavez “wanted to have either Father Victor Salandini, a Catholic priest, or Chris Hartmire [an ordained minister] go into the camp as witnesses.”17 However, the priests were promptly arrested when they entered the property, but were later released. The result of the priests being arrested sparked a unity between the Catholic Church and the Mexican American cause to stop injustices.
In 1968, the U.S. Catholic bishops addressed the need for the Catholic Church to assist in reconciliation between the growers and the farmers. “In addition, the bishops recognized the legitimacy of the workers’ demand for legislative protection for their right to organize for the purpose of collective-bargaining contracts…Finally, the U.S. bishops
affirmed the moral teaching of the church with regard to the right of workers to organize and strike.”18 Chavez reaching out to the Catholic Church and the Catholic Church responding, portrayed to the nation that the farmer’s cause was a religious and moral movement to end injustice. The religious imagery, in turn, united the farmers and it’s followers.
Cesar Chavez and his religious perspective helped unite people to fight for the farmers. By being acquainted with the writings of Pope Leo XIII, Chavez understood the impact religion can have when fighting for injustices. The Catholic Church preaches good morals and ethics, so Chavez was able to relate his cause to the teachings of the Church. The religious ties brought respect to the organization especially among Hispanics. The majority of Hispanics are very religious people. I know this because I’ve lived in a Hispanic environment all my life. My mother and father are Hispanics and religious faith plays a big role in our lives. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of Hispanics go to the extreme of tattooing the crucifix or the Virgin Mary on their bodies to show their religious faith to the public. It’s the homespun religion we obtain from our elders that keeps the Mexican-American and Catholicism united. Chavez knew the
relationships between Mexican Catholics and the Church, so he successfully united his followers by using religious imagery.
Dalton, Frederick John. The Moral Vision of Cesar E. Chavez. New York: Orbis Books, 2003.
Dolan, Jay. Mexican Americans and the Catholic Church. University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.
Hammerback, John C., and Richard J. Jensen. The Rhetorical Career of Cesar Chavez. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1998.
Ingram, Catherine. “Cesar Chavez.” In In the Footsteps of Gandhi: Conversations with Spiritual Social Activists, 98-121. Berkeley, Calif.: Parallaz Press, 1990.
Levy, Jacques E. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975.
Meister, Dick, and Anne Loftis. A long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1977.
Mosqueda, Lawrence J. Chicanos, Catholicism and Political Ideology. Lanham, MD.: University of Press of America, 1996.
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