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The Prescott Daily Courier | Prescott, Arizona

home : opinions : opinions February 26, 2015


4/3/2012 9:59:00 PM
Column: Arizona native Cesar Chavez: A great American story
Tom Cantlon
Courier Columnist

I just like the story of Cesar Chavez. What a great American story.

Cesar was born in Arizona on a ranch his father owned. His father employed farm workers, and treated them well. Then they lost the ranch in the Great Depression and became farm workers themselves. He did a stint in the Navy, and then spent the rest of his life making great strides for the lowest paid of working people, and did it all in peaceful ways. That's just a great, admirable life.

His birthday was celebrated last week. He was born near Yuma on March 31, 1927. He came to know both sides of the labor issue because of that ranch his father had owned near Yuma when Cesar was young, often employing farm workers. His father was good to those workers, and it was his father who first got him involved in the farm worker struggle. By the time Cesar was 13 they had lost the ranch due to the Great Depression, become migrant workers themselves, and his father was organizing strikes.

Cesar dropped out of school after eighth grade so he could work full time to help support the family. At 17 he joined the Navy for a two-year stint, then went back to work as a farm worker. Before long he became involved in organizing workers for better conditions. Cesar continued to push for farm workers' rights for the rest of his life.

Despite being harassed with audits of his United Farm Workers, nothing could ever be found against him because he relied on the people he was helping, wherever he went, to provide him room and board, so no one could accuse him of profiting from his cause.

His methods were always peaceful, heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and the "ahimsa" methods of promoting peaceful change. Living modestly and staying dedicated to his cause to the end, he accomplished a great deal for farm workers, and indirectly for workers in general.

Mr. Chavez performed hunger strikes several times to draw attention to his cause, and they worked. His longest fast was 36 days. The fasts, and all his time working in the fields, eventually probably cost him his health. He can truly be said to have led an exemplary life, dedicated to helping others, and very effectively so.

I don't think there is another American in modern times whose entire life is such a model of personal sacrifice, character, and great accomplishment on behalf of those who needed it most.

His life is something we all can honor because it is about ordinary people, working people, being able to improve their lives. Just as Europeans did as they went from feudalism to more rights and a free market. Just as this country did as we went from colonies to a free country. This is another chapter in that same book. A chapter centered on an Arizona native and on the agriculture of the Southwest.

It is our story ... something everyone in Arizona can cheer.



Tom Cantlon is a longtime local resident, business owner and writer. Contact him at TomCantlon@TomCantlon.com.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, April 07, 2012
Article comment by: To: Hokas Pokas

Obviously.

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2012
Article comment by: Hokas Pokas

@ To: Hokas Pokas:

Quite true. And I accept that.

To say that when a very young man arrived in New York in the early 1920's, with nothing, barely able to speak the language, made his way to the west coast, scrounged together a few bucks, bought a run-down farm outside of Porterville, CA, the middle of nowhere, worked hard, expanded it into an arid, tumble weed covered land outside Delano and built it into a business that exported produce all over the U.S.A., and the world, is of no help. At his peak, he employed about 200 full time workers and about 200 seasonal workers. His goal, simply to provide fresh, good quality produce to the people of his adopted country. His priority, to be fair to his employees, because he knew what it was to be like them and he knew, that, without them he would not succeed. He contributed to his local communities and helped his oppressed friends and family in the "old Country". Was he a saint? No, of course not. But, he died in 1979 with no regrets, harboring no animosity towards no man.

Without my selfish choice to remain anonymous, the record of his life is as public as that of Mr. Chavez. His story is not unique. The story of my uncle's life is no different than thousands of others who came to the "land of opportunity".

What I find most disturbing, is that people like Mr. Chavez are honored for their exploits, they earned it, but people like my uncle, people that grew food and produced new products and provided us with the life we enjoy today, a life that many here in the U.S.A. take for granted, are all but forgotten and even villified.

But, as you say, this is "anecdotal".


Posted: Friday, April 06, 2012
Article comment by: To: Hokas Pokas

Anecdotal evidence does not trump broader evidence.

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2012
Article comment by: Hokas Pokas

George and Tom:

I would not expect the vague recollections from years ago, about one rancher, would sway any opinions. And I do not disagree, conditions for the Braceros and all farmworkers, in all likelihood, were difficult. But, George, as I recall, slavery, by definition, is involutary. The Bracero program as well as all migrant farm work, legal and illegal, was voluntary. Seems to me to be a big difference.

The aftermath of my relatives story is also interesting, as he wrote in his memoirs, which were published a few years before his passing. After his farm was foreclosed on, about 4500 acres, it was purchased by a huge agricultural conglomerate, Tenneco. They bought up tens of thousands of acres in the area. They dealt with unions by paying higher wages, but required much more production out of far fewer workers. They also developed and used more mechanized farming techniques, further reducing the need for manual labor.

My "uncle" saw nothing wrong with this. He also, in his memoirs, had sympathy for the unions and their goals. Since he, himself, was a minority and new what it was like to be dirt poor. In fact, he relates that the brother of Cesar Chavez once worked for him. My "uncle's" only hope was that the solution would be fair for both sides.


Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2012
Article comment by: The Rev

That is the thing about heroes they are always someone else's enemy. In this instance I call upon the detractors to remember their comments here when Tom C goes after your saints.

@The Reb Did you get what you needed?


Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2012
Article comment by: George Seaman

Hokas,

Sorry to hear about your relative, but I have heard the same arguments about slavery in the south. "Not all slaves were treated badly, some lived in nice cabins, ate well etc. And after abolition their lives actually got worse." Not a very good reason to justify slavery, and not a good reason to justify indentured servitude either. .

Losing a business because of strikes/boycotts is part of the risk of doing business in a free market capitalist system. Remember at the time that table grapes that were picked by union workers were marked and NOT boycotted? This tactic eventually led to growers allowing unionization. The shacks that I saw were horrendous, the union fed people every night at the community center because it was the only decent food available, the wages were pathetic, etc.

The issues with farm workers were very complicated, but striving to improve the lives of people who were clearly the hard working underpaid poor was not a bad effort.

And arguing that the lifestyle of migrants was better here than in Mexico is a straw man argument. NO ONE who works hard in the USA should ever be living at the mercy of such an abusive program. Conservatives always argue that if you work hard you should be able to advance, but that was not the case in Delano at the time. And it has proven to not be the case whenever government has not looked out for the rights of workers. That is not to say that everyone is neglected without government oversight, but even a few is too many.


Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2012
Article comment by: Tom Cantlon

To George, Hokas, and Ms. Smith-Fornara, I don't have direct experience or relatives with experience as you do. Having merely studied current immigration I'll give my 2 cents on how it relates to the past. The undocumented workers (UW) of the past, the Braceros, the current UW come in hope of enough pay to send some home. They may actually have had better conditions, and hard work but without abuse, back with their families, but the families are desperate for money. The fact that they are here does not mean things are better here. Just that either the pay is, or at least they hope to find that pay. I don't see how bad conditions today can be laid at the feet of a person or org that saw bad conditions, tried to do something about it, and had some success. Seems like a case of not enough success and things slipping backward since. A lot of that is for the same reasons all unions have slipped, changed conditions and hostile legislators and industries that benefit from the status quo. It is unfortunate if some good growers were harmed. Maybe a flaw in how strikes were done. But it's probably hard to rally a strike across an entire industry and be that specific in how it's applied at each grower. It seems a good grower becomes another victim of all the others who created an abusive system.

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2012
Article comment by: Marcus Cicero

Tom: As usual, you have written a timely and perceptive column. Cesar Chavez was surely the instrumental man in expanding the labor movement to farmworkers. Viva la huelga!

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2012
Article comment by: GUESS WHAT

YOU DO KNOW THAT THE LATIONS WILL BE THE MAJORITY IN 20 YEARS, RIGHT?

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2012
Article comment by: Hokas Pokas

Hey George,

Listen, you're right, but hind sight being what it is, I noticed that the Bracero Program was not exactly as bad as Mr. Chavez said it was. I had a distant relative who grew table grapes in Delano. He came to this country with nothing. He somehow saved enough money, bought a farm and enlarged it over the years. Literally building it with his own hands. He was approved by the U.S. Department of Labor to participate in the Bracero Program. He provided the workers with decent wages, food, housing and medical care, a standard of living that was far better than what was available to them in Mexico. I saw with my own, young eyes, where these workers lived. We had dinner, my family and I, with some of the lead workers. Ate there food. My relative was driven into bankruptcy, he lost everything, and I mean everything, because of the strikes. The problem, as my relative saw it, were the illegal migrant workers that were being brought in by other farmers. These workers were, indeed, treated poorly and on this point, Mr. Chavez was correct. But, because the braceros resisted and impeded unionization, the program also became a target.

George, please answer me this, if the Bracero Program was so terrible why did the number of workers continue to increase year after year until the late fifties and early sixties when the unions became more active? Why did many return year after year? Why did the Mexican government want to restrict participation in the program because they were worried that the small towns and villages would be stripped of their most productive workers?

So, today, we have no guest worker program and a problem with illegal workers, who, by the way, are not union members and, in all probability, are not treated well. Are things really better now?

Without a doubt, Mr. Chavez meant well, but, I believe, he destroyed a very good program.


Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2012
Article comment by: The Reb

Support SB 1070. It's working.

Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: jeri smith-fornara

It is dismaying to see so much confusion and misinformation in these comments. Credit is due Tom Cantlon for writing this article.

I knew and worked with Cesar Chavez, who was perhaps one of the dozen most notable Arizonans of the 20th century. In a time of strife and conflict, he set a wonderful example of non-violence. He was self sacrificing, modest, and never sought wealth. His impact was felt not only in California and Arizona but to the north in Oregon and in the Midwest as well.

Some of those posting apparently confuse him with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. I am amazed that there would be such animosity directed toward such a peaceful, non-violent perrson. Cesar Chavez will be in the history books for a long time. Credit should also be given, by the way, to Dolores Huerta and other women who also were leaders of the farmworkers movement. Remarkable people.


Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: George Seaman

HELLOOOO Hokas!

Good to see you again friend.

As I am sure you will agree, telling a portion of the truth can often be the best way to mislead people. Your comments about the brazero movement of the 50s and 60s was almost the truth. You are correct in stating that the Mexican and American governments came up with this arrangment, and as it often is... such arrangements were beneficial to the corporate interests which pushed for them in the first place. It WAS successful...IF you were a grower!

Brazeros were not much more than legal slaves. They worked for pennies a day, lived by the dozens in shacks that were exposed to the elements without electricity or plumbing, nothing even resembling health care (even for injuries suffered on the job)...etc.

I walked a picket line in Delano which was the object of a violent attack by the Teamsters, saw the living stuations of the workers and met Chavez and his organizers. It was virtual slavery! And as was true with slavery in the south, it "worked" for the growers but not the workers. It was similar to the working situation of the factories of the east at the turn of the last century, "capitalism" run amuck and enforced by the government. A warning to us today of what happens when the People are no longer the ones controling labor policy.

This was the core of the issue. Did the workers have a right under the principles of the free enterprise system to organize and demand something resembling a living wage, and did they have the right under that system to ask that other people support their effort and vote with their pocketbooks by boycotting growers who violated their basic human rights? I think you will agree that they did.

Strikes and boycotts are an effective tool in the free enterprise system. allowing labor to have a voice at the table. Contrary to modern "conservative" ideology, this ought to be a basic principle of economic conservatism.

What would be a more interesting discussion would be how the growers were able to use the mostly anglo Teamsters to work as their storm troopers in this fight. Union against Union...interesting. An admittedly racial fight

Nice column Tom. Chavez was not a saint, but he was an extremely important character of the time. A man motivated by his strong Christian ideology, and commitment to freedom.

VIVA!





Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: Richard Aberdeen

Great article about a great human being. One can always spot the difference by watching the money trail. Note how people like Jesus, Gandhi, King and Chavez lived simple lives of poor working class and lower status. Compare to conservative Christian tv evangelists and their mega churches of heathen shame. One only needs to pay attention to the money trail to see right away, who is sincere and how is instead, a "snake", "hypocrite" and "blind leader of the blind", as Jesus called all such conservative money-grubbing religious fundamentalists.

Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: Hokas Pokas

There is more to the story of Cesar Chavez. In 1942, the U.S. and Mexican governments initiated a guest worker program, known as the Bracero (strong-arm) Program. This allowed temporary workers to come from Mexico and work on the farms in the U.S. This program, proving to be successful, was extended until 1964. This program was brought to an end by the The National Farm Laborers Union, Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and, you guessed it, Cesar Chavez. Once it ended, the United Farm Workers, with Mr. Chavez at its head, rose to prominence.

Thanks, Mr. Chavez.


Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: Ghost of the Real Prescott Patriot

What about the rest of the story...Most importantly his Communist ideals!

Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: Tom needs a good editor

I think Mr. Chavez life is worthy of praise. It would have been more effective if it had not been so overdone.

"His father employed farm workers, and treated them well. "

Garland has a point. Was Cantlon there to witness this himself? If not, where did this statement come from? And then he simply repeats much of the first paragraph in the second paragraph which to me was just distracting. This is just one of those pieces that screams for a decent editor.


Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: Al- Idrisi

My point is that people like James Madison quickly lionize or demonize individuals solely based on the their political bias. The fact that a conservative hero was guilty of one of his main points against Cesar Chavez illustrates hypocrisy. Its polemic and is just meant to discredit someone of value that how different opinions. Like you said people are rarely all good or all bad, however those with an axe to grind will never see the kernel of truth.

Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: Namby Pamby Liberal

@James Madison/Blunt Truth:

Speaking as someone who did not read the Wikipedia page, knows nothing about Cesar Chavez, and does not need to in order to evaluate your "facts":

1) Ok, sure. Yes, plenty of others others also supported Ferdinand Marcos at the time, but sure.

2) Who cares? Do animals not have rights?

3) You usually use those two words together to mean "someone you dislike". You are unaware of what either of them means aside from that, thus your application of them to Cesar Chavez only tells us that he is someone you dislike.


Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: Tom c

To James Madison, while I certainly wouldn't say everything Mr. Cavez did was perfect (if that were the standard we couldn't admire anyone) "he was a leftist"? Yes. "backed...Marcos"? Yes. Shouldn't have. So did the US. "endorsed animal rights"? Is there a problem with that? "socialist, progressive"? Yes. "Saul Alinsky...community organizer"? What? Guilt by association? To a person trying to do good things, if with a mixed bag of methods? "organized strikes and boycotts"? Yes. To Garland Adams. I can always use improving and don't mind mistakes being pointed out at all. That there was some emotion rather than just dry journalism was what I was intentionally choosing to convey. The use "Cesar" was not my choice. Editors sometimes feel the need to do things. Ask them. As for the teachers and cops, etc. you'll note I intentionally qualified it as about people of "great accomplishment". There are thousands of everyday heroes we sorely need. Of those whose work reached national, notable change, I stand by the comment. His standard of living? I don't know his finances. I doubt they were much between the relentless audits and his dedication, but everything I've read is that he lived extremely simply and have never seen that challenged. But aside from all the comments that distract from the core issue, what do you all think about his accomplishments for a group of workers who needed help? About the great example his life was? I hope it is not the case that having nothing positive to say comes from not liking who he helped, or not liking him because of who he helped. I choose to hope we're all above that.

Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: The Rev

Garland one does not use the sword to carve cotton candy.

Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: Blunt Truth

Reed: You are incorrect re: Hugo not Cesar.
Everything James Madison said about Cesar is true, and can be easilty verified independently, unless you prefer to remain ignorant of all the facts. People are rarely all good or all bad. Cesar was a person that did some good work, and made some mistakes.

Al- Idrisi: What is your point? As long as at least two people are wrong, nobody is wrong. Here's a thought, someone else being wrong about the same thing, doesn't make it right. Something my folks taught me when I was about 5.


Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: Tom Bowden

I'm conflicted, because that facts presented by both Tom Cantlon and James Madison are both correct. Chavez did some good work, but he was sure no saint.

Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: The Rev

Cesar Chavez Avenue. Upon noticing this road sign my friend questioned: "Why did they name a street after a boxer?"

Posted: Wednesday, April 04, 2012
Article comment by: Garland Adams

Please, don't misunderstand. I can make a spelling or grammar error just like anyone else. I violate the rules of composition regularly. When someone makes such a mistake in the course of political commentary or debate, I don't think that should detract from the discussion. But come on, let's face it. When an experienced columnist starts a piece with the first two paragraphs he uses in this one, it's really pretty disgraceful.

While I don't want to insult junior high school students in the least, we have to admit that Cantlon's first two paragraphs look as though they've been written by an 11 year old kid. The giddy, personal adoration shown toward the subject is a little odd. As is the use of the subject's first name, as though the two were good friends or something.

Then near the end of the piece, we have this quote in the column, telling us of the author's very simple, narrow minded perspective on things: "I don't think there is another American in modern times whose entire life is such a model of personal sacrifice, character, and great accomplishment on behalf of those who needed it most."

I bet there are some inner city school teachers, military personnel, cops, firefighters and foster parents who might feel a bit slighted by Cantlon's childish remark. Then again, such people probably wouldn't stop to give it a second thought.

p.s. Hey Cantlon, how would you assess Chavez's wealth and standard of living in comparison to all of those he represents? Is he a "1%-er"?



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