Google+ Badge

Monday, February 16, 2009

Cesar Chavez and the crisis of nonnegotiable demands

By Sean Cruz

Portland, Oregon-- I have long supported recognizing the achievements and the inspiration of Cesar Chavez in a permanent, physical way in Portland.

Like Cesar Chavez, I am the son and grandson of Mexican farm workers.

Like Cesar Chavez, I am a first-generation Mexican-American, born in the USA.

Like Cesar Chavez, I am ethnically, culturally and politically a Chicano, with ties to the Chicano Movement of the 1970s.

Like Cesar Chavez, I am unafraid to speak truth to power and I do not hide my identity behind anonymity.

More than a decade ago, as a member of the KBOO Board of Directors, it was my motion, passed on a unanimous vote, to declare Cesar Chavez’ birthday a national holiday. That same year, Texas declared his birthday a state holiday.

In 2003, I staffed Senator Avel Gordly as she and Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner Dan Gardner overturned one of the last of the state’s shameful race-based laws, the statute that denied Oregon farm workers the right to meal and rest breaks during the workday. That work was done intentionally in the spirit of Cesar Chavez.

In 2005, Senator Gordly sponsored legislation at my request that would urge Congress and require the state to consider family connections in immigration law, prioritizing family unification ahead of job status. Our current laws serve to break families apart, mostly Mexican families. These bills were not heard during the session.

Also in 2005, I was on the floor when the Oregon Senate passed SR1, encouraging Oregonians to undertake a day of voluntary service to honor Cesar Chavez…and I continue to wear my Cesar Chavez 37-cent US postage stamp lapel pin on my jacket.

There are many ways to honor a person, and I strongly support recognizing Cesar Chavez in a permanent, physical way.

However, I am troubled by the efforts of the handful of generally well-meaning activists ever since they presented the City of Portland with an agenda of nonnegotiable demands centered on their proposal to rename Interstate Avenue, and here is why:

Right from the beginning, they claimed to represent Portland’s Latino communities, and that is simply not the case. There has been no community process to put the Chavez Committee in charge, and many Latinos wouldn’t follow them out of a burning building….

Even the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has had nothing to say about the effort.

The Avenistas’ antics and accusations in front of City Council and at Ockley Green Middle School were an embarrassment to many of us….

The Chavez Committee has also never identified who its members are, apart from the two co-chairs, not even on their website. Anonymous committees cannot possibly represent a community, and carry no weight with me.

The Committee claimed that any cost associated with renaming a street was inconsequential, and that any opposition to their demands was racially motivated, and neither statement is true. The costs are insignificant only if Other People pay the price….

The Chavez Committee claims that recognizing Cesar Chavez with any memorial other than a major street renaming is an insult to Latinos, and that also is plainly untrue. Communities across the nation have found many other tangible ways to honor Cesar Chavez, including parks and libraries and schools….

The Committee has never asked the City or the County or the State to put other possible public property naming options on the table, and Portland remains stuck in the mire largely because the White Folks in Charge at all levels of Oregon government have been so fearful of alienating a potential voting bloc.

This street-focused effort will win no awards for creativity or imagination, in part because there is no major street in Portland that is a natural fit for a Mexican American hero. Nothing underscores this point more than the fact that the Committee is equally good with Broadway, 39th, Grand or Interstate Avenue, so far….

The Committee claims it wants to honor Cesar Chavez, but nowhere do they acknowledge the fact that he was of Mexican ancestry, or that his achievements stemmed from his great courage and his experiences in a Mexican migrant farm worker family, working in the USA.

The best they can do is to state that he was an American civil rights leader.

That falls far short of honoring his legacy, and points to the core failure of the Committee co-chairs and its unknown membership, apart from the arrogance and clumsiness: education.

While there have been plenty of racist comments opposing the recognition of Cesar Chavez with a street renaming or in any other way, it is clear that even the supporters of the effort have little understanding of who he was, what he accomplished or why it is important to remember him.

Cesar Chavez softened opposition by raising public awareness of the suffering of America’s mostly Mexican migrant agricultural workforce, not by making blanket accusations and staying stuck in a rut….

The boycott of table grapes was part of a strategy to get the attention of the American public on farmworker issues, educate them and then gain their support.

The grapes themselves were not the issue. The issue was the appalling living and working conditions, including the use of the 12-inch short hoe, el cortito, that millions of families were enduring, had endured since the USA established itself in what was until the 1840s the northern part of the Republic of Mexico.

The boycott did not extend to wine grapes, but only table grapes….

Few Americans were going to stand for a bunch of Mexican farm workers messing with their wine, but it was a fairly easy sacrifice for supporters to forego table grapes during the boycott, once they were educated to the issue….

The table grapes were an economic pressure point.

One wonders where we would be now if only the Chavez Committee members had thought to engage the broader community in a discussion, asking the question: What are some appropriate ways to remember Cesar Chavez in Portland?, and working from there….

My guess is that we would have gotten it done a year ago, and it would be beautiful….


Sean Cruz writes:

Blogolitical Sean, political commentary here:

Aaron’s Law, regarding child abduction prevention and resolution here:

Jim Pepper House, dedicated to the legacy of the late, great Jim Pepper here:

Portland’s #1 Predatory Towing Horror Story, regarding predatory patrol towing practices here:

Chicano Hero Cesar Chavez, dedicated to the Mexican-American giant, here.

No comments: