May 8, 2009

Reclaiming the Legacy of César Chávez

By Kent Peterson
Frontera NorteSur

The spirit of legendary farm labor leader César Chávez was alive on the streets of El Paso, Texas, this past weekend. Led by a tight contingent of Mexican dancers, a couple hundred marchers filed by the struggling businesses, open air markets and old apartment buildings of downtown El Paso and the historic Segundo Barrio neighborhood.

Former farmworkers, immigrant rights advocates, environmental activists and others turned out for the April 25 event that honored the co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, who passed away in April 1993. El Paso mayoral candidate Carlos Rivera also showed up to throw in his support for the cause.

Garnering ample public attention, and a blessing of holy water from the priest in front of the Sacred Heart Church, marchers sang “La Guadalupana” and demanded justice. “Viva César Chávez” and “Listen, Obama, We Continue in Struggle,” were two of the most popular chants that broke the balmy day.

Although César Chávez celebrations have become common-and even institutionalized-in parts of the United States in recent years, the 2009 El Paso event had particular political significance, said Carlos Marentes, march co-organizer and long-time leader of the El Paso-based Sin Fronteras Organizing Project and affiliated groups.

“(Chávez) dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of working people, especially agricultural workers,” Marentes said.

In an interview with Frontera NorteSur, Marentes said the life of César Chávez was an important “reference” point during a time when violence, poverty, unemployment, climate change, and food and energy crises define the landscape.

In Ciudad Juarez just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs in the export assembly industry since last year. More than two thousand people have been killed in a bloody narco war, and Mexican soldiers patrol the boulevards, search homes and stop people on the streets. A new US-built border wall obscures the view of the Mexican city from its sister city of El Paso, and long lines of Juarenses endure lengthy US security checks to enter this country to shop, visit relatives or go to school or work.

Analyzing the current political-economic juncture, Maren-tes took issue with the new administration of President Ba-rack Obama on several fronts, including the expansion of the Afghan war, support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, fudging on the torture/human rights issue, and backing the Mexican government’s military strategy to fight drug trafficking. The US public voted for a new direction last November, but little real change of course has emerged from Washington, Marentes contended.

“If there is going to be change in this country, the change has to be from the people,” Marentes insisted. “That’s the significance of us marching.”

Present for the César Chávez commemoration, El Paso resident Rudy Valdez was another man seeking changes from President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Employed as a Mexican contract farmworker in the old Bracero Program, the 73-year-old Valdez worked on farms in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado during the late 1950s. Valdez demanded compensation for paycheck withholdings that were made decades ago but never paid back to the Mexican workers after the Bracero Program was terminated in 1964.

After years of mass protests in Mexico and the US, the Mexican government agreed to make modest payments to ex-braceros, but Valdez said many elderly, ex-farmworkers originally from the state of Chihuahua have yet to receive a cent. Valdez said he’d written President Obama twice during the last couple months to force action on the issue.

“I’m asking Mr. Obama, please, please, send us money,” Valdez pleaded.

In a post-parade talk at the Border Agricultural Workers Center near the Rio Grande, Marentes urged the people gathered to attend another event, the May 1 grand opening of Centro Mayapan in south-central El Paso.

Scheduled for International Workers Day, the event is planned as the official inauguration of a grassroots economic development project launched by La Mujer Obrera, an organization of women garment workers who lost their jobs in the waves of trade liberalization that all but destroyed a once-important El Paso industry after the 1980s.

“Giving more money, more resources to the thieves of Wall Street and the greedy CEOs of the corporations responsible in the first place for the economic crisis will not solve the problem,” Marentes later told Frontera NorteSur. “So Mujer Obrera, by opening Mercado Mayapan, is showing us, the border community and the people, it’s up to us to build another economic system.”

Located in a sprawling, refurbished warehouse, Centro Mayapan will accommodate fair trade projects and small locally-owned businesses, as well as offer space for myriad community events and a museum.

As the April 25 El Paso march wound down with music and chow at the farmworker center, a crowd heard El Paso author Toni Beatriz Fuentes read poems about two pillars of Mexicano-Chicano culture: Our Lady of Guadalupe and César Chávez.

In an interview following the reading, Fuentes described growing up in El Paso’s rural Lower Valley, a place where cotton fields, watermelon patches and wildflowers dominated the scenery instead of the subdivisions and trailer homes of today. For Fuentes, César Chávez represented a land-based, “pure” life free of the of the “city violence” and related problems of contemporary times.

“I love El Paso, I love my country. This is a side of us that few people know about,” Fuentes reflected. “Like César Chávez, we love that part of us that belongs to the humble people, to the Mexican-American, to the Chicano, to the Mexicano, to the American. Yes, we’re all that put together.”

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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