Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama hits a foul by honoring Cesar Chavez

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
October 8, 2012 -- Updated 2339 GMT (0739 HKT)
Labor and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez addresses a rally in Denver in 1974. Chavez, who brought attention to the plight of farm workers, was born near Yuma, Arizona, in 1927. Labor and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez addresses a rally in Denver in 1974. Chavez, who brought attention to the plight of farm workers, was born near Yuma, Arizona, in 1927.
HIDE CAPTION
Cesar Chavez through the years
Cesar Chavez through the years
Cesar Chavez through the years
Cesar Chavez through the years
Cesar Chavez through the years
Cesar Chavez through the years
Cesar Chavez through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Today, President Obama goes to opening of Cesar E. Chavez National Monument
  • Chavez was a labor leader who worked for California migrant farmworkers' rights
  • Ruben Navarrette: This is a political ploy to bolster support from Latino voters
  • Navarrette: Chavez is irrelevant today and his union has ugly history in deportation

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- On March 10, 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy made a pilgrimage to the central California farm town of Delano to attend a Catholic Mass and to help Cesar Chavez break a 25-day fast intended to draw attention to the plight of farmworkers.

Some of Kennedy's advisers had warned him not to go. He was thinking about entering the race for president, and his inner circle worried that the gesture to Chavez, president of the United Farm Workers, might antagonize farm groups, a powerful political force in the San Joaquin Valley. Kennedy went anyway, citing his fondness and respect for Chavez, whom he called "one of the heroic figures of our time."

Weakened by his fast, Chavez still managed to write a powerful statement that was read by a union supporter, the Rev. Jim Drake. It went: "It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men!"

Obama to honor iconic Latino activist with new monument

Kennedy responded by telling those who had gathered: "When your children and grandchildren take their place in America, going to high school and college, and taking good jobs at good pay, when you look at them you will say, 'I did this, I was there at the point of difficulty and danger.' And though you may be old and bent from many years of hard labor, no man will stand taller than you when you say, 'I was there. I marched with Cesar!'"

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

President Obama made his own pilgrimage Monday to the farmland of central California. In his first visit there as president, Obama will formally establish the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument on a piece of property in Keene, east of Bakersfield. Known as Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz, or Our Lady Queen of Peace, the property served as the national headquarters of the United Farm Workers.

Kennedy made his visit despite the politics of the day, but Obama's visit is all about politics. The Chavez dedication is some campaign aide's bright idea of how to turn out Latino voters -- 70% of whom support Obama over Mitt Romney -- on Election Day.

It's a rookie mistake -- the kind you expect from people whose knowledge of America's largest minority is limited to mariachis and margaritas.

I have studied and written about Chavez and the United Farm Workers for more than 25 years. I was also born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley, where so much of the UFW drama played out. I had a confrontation with Chavez in 1990 over the union's failures, and I've had a few run-ins since then with UFW Vice President Delores Huerta.

And I can tell you this much: Politically, Obama hit a foul ball.

Chavez has significance as a historical figure. It is because of the UFW that farmworkers now have clean water and toilets in the fields, collective bargaining, lunch breaks and other legal protections.

But Chavez was never a leader for all Latinos. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans might represent more than two-thirds of the U.S. Latino population, but the other third is made up of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans and others. To them, Chavez probably means nothing. Even Mexican immigrants don't have a stake in the legend of Cesar Chavez; they hear the name, and most of them probably think of the great Mexican boxer, Julio Cesar Chavez.

The group that Chavez has the strongest hold on is Mexican-Americans, but not all of them. He matters to baby boomers, but not to Generation X or the so-called millennial generation. And given that most Mexican-Americans now live in the cities -- Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, San Antonio, Dallas -- how are they supposed to relate to the memory of someone who was focused on the farms?

In the end, the small sliver of Latinos who will be impressed by Obama's gesture -- Mexican-American lefties over 50 -- was going to vote for him anyway. So where's the benefit?

Last, most Latinos disapprove of the president's heavy-handed immigration policies and record number of deportations.

It's immigration, stupid, say Latino voters in Nevada

Chavez earned many titles in his life, but "champion of immigrants" was not one of them. He was primarily a labor leader who was concerned about illegal immigrants undercutting union members, either by accepting lower wages or crossing picket lines. He never pretended to be anything else, and he resisted attempts by others to widen his agenda. When he pulled workers out of the field during a strike, the last thing he wanted was to see a crew of illegal immigrant workers take away his leverage.

According to many historical accounts, Chavez ordered union members to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service and report illegal immigrants who were working in the fields so that they could be deported. Some UFW officials were also known to picket INS offices to demand a crackdown on illegal immigrants.

In the 70s, the UFW set up a "wet line" to stop undocumented Mexican immigrants from entering the United States.

Under the supervision of Chavez's cousin, Manuel, UFW members tried at first to persuade Mexicans not to cross the border. One time when that didn't work, they physically attacked and beat them up to scare them off, according to reports at the time. The Village Voice said that the UFW was engaged in a "campaign of random terror against anyone hapless enough to fall into its net." A couple of decades later, in their book "The Fight in the Fields," journalists Susan Ferris and Ricardo Sandoval recalled the border violence and wrote that the issue of illegal immigration was "particularly vexing" for Chavez.

UFW loyalists will never admit to this ugly history. But that doesn't change it.

And this is the person Obama is honoring today with a national monument? One immigration hardliner paying his respects to another. I guess, in some perverse way, that makes sense. But it won't make most Latino voters any more enthusiastic about re-electing Barack Obama.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT