October 5, 2007

Sí Se Puede (Yes, We Can)

By Javier Sierra

Fourteen years ago, during the funeral for César Chávez, someone said a wonderful prayer: “We have come here to plant your heart like a seed. Farm workers will harvest the seed of your memory.”

During this Hispanic Heritage Month, that prayer resonates in our hearts like a prophecy fulfilled. The legacy of that legendary leader manifests itself in front of us like a tree with graceful branches and a strong trunk, a tree that, day after day, bears the fruit of hope.

This farm worker son of farm workers —armed with peaceful resistance, a faith made of steel and unwavering dignity— taught us that we must never cooperate with something that is humiliating, that we all have the right to live a dignified life and the obligation to rebel against injustice.

“César fought with all his being to give so many people a dignified life,” remembers Dolores Huerta, who fought shoulder to shoulder with Chávez for the rights of tens of thousands of farm workers and in the early 60s founded what would become the United Farm Workers Union. “We all must remember his patience, his strength and his passion to fight for justice.”

Perhaps his most legendary victories were won trying to eliminate those terrible pesticides that poisoned the workers and their families. Often, mothers who spent the whole day toiling in the fields would come home with their clothes covered with pesticides, which, involuntarily, they would transfer to their children while embracing them. It was no wonder cancer incidence among farm workers was up to 800% higher than the national average.

Through peaceful protest that included several hunger strikes —among them one of 36 days in 1988 when he “only had water and the Holy Communion,” as Huerta recalls— Chávez achieved the banning of several pesticides, including the infamous DDT and other poisons such as parathion and aldrin.

The fruits of this formidable legacy are being collected today by hundreds of thousands of farm workers in the form of better working conditions and wages, more access to social services and, above all, better protection against pesticides.

But now it’s our turn to return the favor. And the best way to do it is by supporting the national campaign organized to establish a national holiday in Chávez’ memory.

“César Chávez deserves national recognition because he was one of the most important leaders of the 20th century,” says Evelina Alarcón, Executive Director of César E. Chávez National Holiday (CECNH), the organization that took the lead in this effort. “He was a working class David who fought the agri-business Goliath and won. His courage, humility and service for others provide an inspiring model for everyone in our country to follow.”

This movement got started on March 31st, the 80th anniversary of his birth, and has received the support of hundreds of national organizations, including the most important unions and Hispanic civic groups, the civil rights movement, environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, and celebrities, such as Edward James Olmos, Martin Sheen, Carlos Santana and many others.

However, there is no lack of wet blankets at this fiesta. It’s in Congress, which has the power to establish national holidays, where the biggest obstacle lies. An internal rule approved during the Republican-controlled House of Representatives prohibits the introduction of this kind of initiative.

Although the House is now under Democratic control, its leadership has not yet taken the necessary steps to eliminate the Republican-era rule despite pressure from Rep. Joe Baca (D-CA).

But there is another initiative in Congress to honor Chávez —a bill that would authorize the study of lands of historic significance in relation to Chávez and that would be added to the National Parks Service.

In any instance, this is everyone’s fight. Let’s keep in mind that regardless of Chávez’ pioneering efforts, Latinos continue being more vulnerable to environmental injustices than the rest of the population. Today, three out of five Latinos live dangerously close to toxic sites, be it an agricultural field or a chemical plant.

Get involved. Contact the César Chávez National Holiday (www.CesarChavezholiday.org, 213-387-1974, ext. 20) to help make these campaigns succeed, because, as Chávez used to say, ¡Sí se puede!, yes, we can!

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist.

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