The immigration debate continues to be based on myths created to fill certain political agendas. For years, one of the most distorted histories has been about Cesar Chavez. Chavez is routinely brought up as a hero of immigrants. Yet, Cesar Chavez was as anti-immigrant as most anti-immigrants are. It comes down to the simple fact that Chavez, born in the United States, to Mexican parents, fought for labor rights for American citizens. Immigrant labor for Chavez competed against those Chavez supported.
Much of the false narrative about Chavez comes from Chavez’ own changing views on immigration as the political rhetoric required. The United Farm Workers (UFW), as of Friday, June 29, 2018, has a website page arguing that “no labor leader and organization championed immigration reform earlier and with more consistency than Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America.” The page continues, “under Chavez, the UFW helped enact the amnesty provision of the 1986 immigration law.” [accessed on June 29, 2018]
However, the historical record of Cesar Chavez paints a vastly different truth to Cesar Chavez and how he treated immigrant laborers.
A transcript of the Education and Labor Committee of the House of Representatives of October 1, 1969 where Cesar Chavez addressed the committee gives us a good indication of how Chavez viewed Mexican immigrants.
“We have had for the last four years a most difficult problem with the Justice Department. A year ago we assigned many of our organizers to do nothing but to check on the law violators coming from Mexico to break our strikes. We gave the Immigration and Naturalization Services and the Border Patrol stacks and stacks of information. They did not pull workers out of the struck fields.” [1, pg 3]
Cesar Chavez, in testifying to the congressional committee makes two important admissions. His organization, the United Farm Workers, actively engaged in helping immigration officials identify Mexican laborers working the fields. Chavez and his organization actively demanded that the Mexican laborers they identified be deported.
But Chavez wasn’t finished:
“I would like to remind the Congressmen present that in the last week and a half we have seen how effective the Border Patrol can be when they want to stop marijuana from being imported into the country. It seems to me it would be a lot less difficult to stop human beings coming across than to stop the weed coming across.” [1, pg 3]
But it wasn’t just undocumented immigrants that bothered Chavez. Green card holders, which have the legal right to live and work in the United States bothered Chavez. Congressman John Dent (D-Pennsylvania) asked Chavez if there was an increase of green card holders working the grape fields.
Chavez responded that green card holders working the fields have increased and the green card holders “are taking advantage” of their status to work the grape fields during the strikes. [1, pg 11] When Denton followed up with a question about how the “green card program has really been a dodge to circumvent the law we (Congress) passed against continuation of braceros”.
Chavez replied that the green card holders are “able to take work in America however poor the wages may be, and then go back to Mexico and live pretty well.” [1, pg 11]
To be clear, a green card holder is a legal resident of the United States with the right to work, live and pay taxes like all U.S. citizens. The exception is that a green card holder is not a citizen and cannot therefore vote in elections.
Additionally, Chavez had no problem referring to Mexican laborers as “wetbacks”. [1, pg 26] In fact, Chavez used the word frequently.
When these examples are brought up today, the usual response is that “immigration is complicated” or that the words were common vernacular at the time. However, one feels about the complexity of the immigration problem or the use of certain words, the fact remains that Chavez and the UFW are labor organizers. As such, immigrant labor is always a threat to them.
Cesar Chavez’s war against immigrants did not stop at calling them “wet backs” or demanding that immigration agents deport them.
Most readers may be aware of the Alt-right vigilante groups patrolling the border to interdict undocumented immigrants. The United Farm Workers (UFW) organized “wet lines” to keep undocumented immigrants from reaching the Yuma citrus fields.
UFW members “patrolled 125 miles of the border to prevent undocumented migrants from entering into the United States.” Some of the immigrants were beaten with “sticks,” “a battery cable” or were “robbed,” or “stripped” naked and left in the desert. [2, chapter six, second page]
Bert Corona, also a labor organizer, was driven to form the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional in 1951 because of his frequent clashes with Cesar Chavez over Mexican immigrants. Corona, who was born in El Paso, believed that undocumented immigrants should organize as well to protect themselves. Corona tried to work with Chavez but finally gave up when Chavez refused to backdown on his attacks against the Mexican laborers, both legal and undocumented.
But none of this has stopped the UFW, the AFL-CIO, or Dolores Huerta from trying to misdirect with a new narrative about their history. Their favorite one is the supposed support of the UFW and other labor organizations for the amnesty Ronald Reagan pushed through in 1986. It is this supposed support that they hope allows them to distort the truth.
However, the labor organizations were against amnesty for the simple reason that newly authorized workers would compete against the union workers for jobs.
Regardless, the historical record is clear about what Cesar Chavez and the UFW thought about Mexican immigrants. They did everything in their power to keep them out of America’s agricultural fields.
1. Public Hearing Transcript of The U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee on October 1, 1969.
2. Minian, Ana Raquel; “Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration”; Harvard University Press, April 9, 2018
While these unfortunate truths about Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, & the UFW need to become common knowledge, they should be seen in the larger context of a US labor movement that is traditionally nationalistic, & that has, with rare exceptions, refused to accept that successful labor struggles must be international in scope.
While business & finance have traditionally acknowledged that capital & labor are naturally international, & must be dealt with as such, American labor unions tie one hand behind their backs. They generally refuse to collaborate with their international counterparts—allowing business to divide & conquer labor struggles by keeping them as artificially US-only battles.
This doesn’t absolve Chavez’s dismal record, but it makes his questionable actions a reflection of a typically shameful history of myopic labor surrender to the demands of a rapacious American corporate agenda.
Corona was clashing with Chavez in 1951? That cannot be historically correct. Chavez was not a union leader or even known in 1951.
“Bert Corona, also a labor organizer, was driven to form the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional in 1951 because of his frequent clashes with Cesar Chavez over Mexican immigrants.”
Chavez did not hate Mexican immigrants, many of who were members of the UFW, which did not require proof of citizenship. He opposed strikebreakers, and his actions were related to labor issues, not hatred for Mexicans.
Hector Montes ignores Martin Paredes’ multiple examples of Cesar Chavez’s egregious hostility to undocumented labor, in order to deny Chavez’s “hatred” of these illegal Mexican workers. While hatred may be a loaded word in this case, there was certainly no love lost between the UFW & undocumented farmworkers.
Montes also uses Paredes’ conflation of the 1951 founding of Corona’s “Hermandad” organization, with the latter’s strategy disputes with Chavez—to imply that the two labor leaders barely knew each other, & that there was no dispute between them.
In fact, Corona & Chavez were both early members of the CSO (Community Service Organization), a Saul Alinsky-affiliated community organization that was active all over California. Chavez became a member in San Jose, while Corona worked in the Bay Area. Cesar became so effective & well-known that he was elected the state head of CSO in 1958. Corona joined CSO in 1947, so he had a long, if not always harmonious, acquaintance with Chavez.
One of the main stumbling blocks between the two leaders was not just the specific issue of how to deal with so-called “wetbacks.” They were two extremely talented & bold labor/community advocates. But, they came from rival political traditions, that held no quarter versus each other. Corona, in the early WW II years, was a CIO labor organizer in the defense industries, & had no security clearance. The CIO was the Communist-dominated industrial union coalition.
Chavez, arriving to prominence in the Cold War 50s, was a staunch advocate for George Meaney’s nationalist, anti-Communist, AFL union umbrella. Even after the two union groups united in 1956, the racist, jingoistic, Meaney attitude still dominated US organizing. Aside from all other considerations, the sharply differing political perspectives between Chávez & Corona influenced their hostility to each other. It also negatively shaped Cesar Chavez’s ultimately self-defeating tactics, regarding undocumented farm labor.
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