Learning about Human Rights from Cesar Chavez
No one has taught me more about the struggle for human rights than Cesar Chavez. March 31 was Cesar Chavez Day in Colorado (and several other states). The great Mexican-American labor leader and human rights activist was not someone familiar to me while growing up on the East Coast, but soon after moving to Boulder in the early 1990s he was often discussed by my fellow history instructors at the Community College of Aurora and fellow graduate students at the University of Colorado. By the time Front Range Community College offered me a full-time position teaching history in 1998, there was no doubt in my mind that Chavez would be a key figure in many of my courses.
‘The Struggle in the Fields’
Since my first year teaching at FRCC, a featured tool for learning about Chavez in my history classes has been the very powerful and inspirational documentary called “The Struggle in the Fields,” one episode in a 4-part series called “Chicano: History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement.”
This great hour-long film portrays the story of the heroic fight to win justice for migrant farm workers by Chavez and his followers. A strike in the California grape fields that lasted five years, from 1965 to 1970, is only part of the incredible drama. It also includes an international boycott against the grape industry, a long march to Sacramento, and a hunger strike by Chavez himself. Hundreds of my students have been moved to tears by this story.
The Importance of Friends (and Enemies) in a Social Movement
In addition to the amazing efforts by Chavez himself to fight for, and ultimately attain, better pay and a wide range of well-deserved benefits and general respect for migrant farm workers, the film makes very clear the importance in the farm workers’ struggle (as in any struggle) of having friends.
Among the most noteworthy allies of Chavez are one of the great women in American history, Dolores Huerta, and Senator Robert Kennedy, the younger brother of John Kennedy who befriended Chavez and supported his cause until an assassin tragically ended RFK’s life in June 1968.
On the other side of the coin, we can learn a lot about history and the significance of Chavez by understanding who his enemies were in the late 1960s. None was more powerful than the governor of California, Ronald Reagan. The scene of Reagan pointedly munching on grapes (yes, grapes) during a press conference in the midst of the grape boycott is one of the most powerful statements of disagreement I have ever seen. It chokes me up still, even after seeing approximately fifty times.
Want to Learn More About Cesar Chavez?
In addition to the film, a very good book is “Cesar Chavez: A Brief Biography with Documents” by Richard Etulain. It’s concise and clear but full of primary sources and great analysis.
If you live near Front Range Community College, you can take History 236: The United States since 1945. In this course we consider how Chavez personified the long struggle in American history for human rights.
Another option would be to take ETH 224: Introduction to Chicano Studies, which is regularly taught at the Boulder County Campus by Cherri Emerson. An added benefit of learning about Chavez from Professor Emerson is that she is a close personal friend of Ernesto Vigil, who participated in Denver’s “Crusade for Justice” with a great ally of Chavez named Corky Gonzales, and who has also a well-respected scholar of Chicano history. Ernesto always pays a visit to Professor Emerson’s class in the fall (and usually my classes, too).