In the mid-1960s, I was part of the national table grape boycott. During the Vietnam era, protests against anything mainstream were widespread. I lived in New York, thousands of miles away from the San Joaquin Valley where most of the grapes were grown.
My friends and I were young and idealistic. To us, Cesar Chavez’s noble efforts to get his 1,000 United Farm Workers Association members a contract that provided workers with significant benefits and a decent wage demonstrated —or so we thought—that power was with the people. Chavez’s boycott, highlighted by his 25-day fast, was the most successful in American history.
Like most Americans at the time, I knew nothing about immigration. The 1965 Immigration Act had passed but the impact had not yet taken effect. Today, I respect Chavez for another reason —his staunch opposition to illegal immigration. Chavez knew that every illegal immigrant who arrived in California and hoped to earn a salary by picking grapes represented a threat to his existing union members. More available labor, Chavez understood, meant lower wages for existing workers.
Enter President Obama who unlike Chavez either knows nothing or prefers to ignore the labor market supply and demand relationship. On October 8, President Obama traveled to Keene, California to establish the Cesar Chavez Monument as part of another naked attempt to woo Latino voters—the same voters who favor him by 70 percent over challenger Mitt Romney. Helen Chavez, Cesar’s elderly grandmother, spoke at the ceremony.
Apparently, neither Obama nor his advisors have any concept of what Chavez’s legacy is truly about. Chavez is the least likely person to refer to as an immigration champion or whatever other flowery language the president might use in an effort to establish a connection with Latinos. Read Obama’s speech here.
Even the most radical California university professors of Mexican ancestry acknowledge that Chavez worked in concert with the Immigration and Nationalization Services. Chavez and his UFW lieutenants reported aliens on sight and went so far as to establish what became known as a “wet line,” a 100 mile stretch along the Arizona border with Mexico to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States. Facts, as the saying goes, are stubborn.
In one of life’s curious twists and turns, years after I left New York I landed in the San Joaquin Valley to begin a second career as an English as a Second Language instructor. I taught both adults and K-12 students. Among the adults, some had a passing knowledge of Chavez; the high school kids knew little more than Chavez was involved—in some way—with agriculture. Despite what could accurately be described as heavy handed efforts by some Hispanic teachers and administrators to convert Chavez into a Mexican immigration hero, their efforts failed.
My former students reached voting age years ago. They now represent the demographic that Obama lusts after. Even though they will probably vote Democrat, I’m certain that Obama’s empty dedication speech didn't sway them even if they bothered to read it or watch parts of it on the evening news.
For more details about Chavez, read my September 4 CAPS homepage column here.