The independent student news site of San Marcos, California

The Cougar Chronicle

The independent student news site of San Marcos, California

The Cougar Chronicle

The independent student news site of San Marcos, California

The Cougar Chronicle

How Should CSUSM Commemorate Cesar Chavez?

Is CSUSM doing enough to reckon with Chavez’ racism toward undocumented immigrants?
Angelina Guzman
Cesar Chavez statue at CSUSM.

From Martin Luther King Jr. to Mahatma Gandhi, great leaders tend to become the personal embodiment of historical movements. In both our textbooks and our popular historical memory, a leader’s name can become synonymous with the achievements of a movement.

The case of Cesar Chavez is a stark example of this phenomenon. For some, scrutinizing his legacy is tantamount to undermining the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) achievements.

We at the Cougar Chronicle want to open a discussion of Cesar Chavez’ legacy, and call into question some of the values he represents for our campus.

Our intention is not to negate his immense achievements as a labor organizer and civil rights activist. Rather, we hope our work can amplify the voices of students who have expressed concerns about how Chavez is represented on campus. Ultimately, we want to have more honest conversations about his legacy.

Although CSUSM has recently tried to acknowledge the work of Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong, and other previously sidelined members of the farmworkers’ movement’s history. We still have a long way to go if we are to properly acknowledge Chavez as an activist who was inspiring and reviled in equal measure, even in his own time.

This article focuses primarily on Chavez’ racist “Campaign Against Illegals.” One could say we are being unfair or unbalanced in our treatment of Chavez. However, popular history has often intentionally left out what we have chosen to focus on. It is within this broader context that we are trying to include what has been unfairly excluded or downplayed from most narratives, especially those on our campus.

Refusing to honestly depict Chavez as a complex human being—one who had flaws just like anyone else—leaves the door open for bad-faith actors to use his hateful actions against undocumented immigrants as justification for their bigotry today. For that reason, CSUSM must correct its misleading and hagiographic representations of Chavez and UFW history.

Cesar Chavez and Undocumented Immigrants

In his article, “The UFW and the Undocumented,” Frank Bardacke writes, “Starting in the spring of 1974, Chávez led an organized, systematic attack on undocumented workers, doing all that he could to throw the whole weight of his organization into what he called the ‘Campaign Against Illegals.’”

This campaign included fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric, including repeated use of the word “wetback” in both UFW newspapers and Chavez interviews. As part of the campaign, “volunteers tracked down illegals where they worked and lived, informed local INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] officials, and, on forms provided by the UFW’s central headquarters, documented the border patrol’s typical refusal to take any action.”

This culminated in the most notorious effort of the UFW’s campaign: the “wet line.” Bardacke describes it as follows:

“…as many as 300 people wearing arm bands that read ‘UFW Border Patrol,’ hunted down illegals along the border near San Luis, Arizona. Living in tents near the border, they used cars, dune buggies, trucks, vans, and even an airplane to track and catch people trying to cross and then turned them back to Mexico. Led by Chávez’s cousin, Manuel, and financed by UFW headquarters, the Wet Line lasted until early 1975 and went unchecked by any local, state, or federal police agencies. According to many reports, undocumented workers who fell into the hands of the UFW were often beaten, sometimes quite brutally.”

In her biography, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, Miriam Pawel writes that the UFW had spent over $1 million on the Illegals Campaign by the end of 1974. Even then, the campaign was controversial within the union. According to Pawel:

“Some UFW field offices refused to cooperate in tracking and reporting illegal immigrants, and even some board members expressed concerns. [Dolores] Huerta supported the campaign but suggested they change the terminology because some people found the words wetback and illegal offensive… Chavez turned on Huerta angrily. ‘No, a spade’s a spade,’ he said. ‘You guys get these hang-ups. Goddamn it, how do we build a union? They’re wets, you know? They’re wets, and let’s go after them.'”

Although the UFW are strong advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants today, they continue to minimize Chavez’ nativist beliefs, claiming he had misguidedly intended to stop strikebreakers but never held any true animosity toward the undocumented. Unfortunately, this negates history.

According to Bardacke, when Chavez was confronted with the hypocrisy of his racist campaign, he said, “We’re against illegals no matter where they work because if they are not breaking the strike they are taking our jobs.”

Even more surprising than these blunt statements, Bardacke writes that “in the year that the Campaign Against Illegals became the UFW’s number-one priority, about half the people working in the California fields were undocumented.”

Given this fact, what could have possibly motivated Chavez’ racism against undocumented immigrants? As it turns out, there may be more to his motives than just nativism.

Bardacke claims, “Chavez believed that blaming illegals for lost strikes would help him rebuild a boycott, which he considered the key to UFW power.” Essentially, at this time Chavez used undocumented immigrants as a scapegoat for his boycott difficulties.

Not only that, Pawel describes how Chavez hated what he perceived as immigrants’ being materialistic:

“Chavez dwelt on [immigrants coming north to make money] frequently, lamenting the difficulty in organizing people who cared about money. They needed to be educated to appreciate sacrifice. Immigrants ‘come here to become rich, you know,’ he told Levy. ‘It is so ingrained in them. Although they’re sympathetic and they want to help you, goddamn, they miss one day’s work and they think they’re going to die.’”

This quote is telling. Despite our popular understanding of Cesar Chavez as a champion for human rights, he was focused on American needs first. Although Chavez had lofty ambitions for his movement, his attitude toward immigrants, as expressed here, demonstrates a dehumanization of the undocumented immigrant’s struggle.

Yet Chavez’ nativist beliefs were not the only thing people criticized him for. The autocratic structure of the UFW and the semi-religious cult of personality built around him continue to be similarly controversial; and Chavez was known to ignore and even fire dissident staffers. It is important that we reckon with these issues, too, but it is Chavez’ attitude toward undocumented immigrants that is of utmost importance to today’s political discourse.

Looking Forward

By not having honest conversations about Chavez’ hateful acts against undocumented immigrants, hate groups and other reactionaries have been able to use his legacy as a bludgeon against those advocating for humane immigration policy today.

History is an unending process, and our views on the past shape our views for the future. We can properly honor Cesar Chavez by learning from his mistakes and moving beyond the mythology and hero worship surrounding him. If we are to commemorate historical figures as pillars for progressive change today, we must better emphasize their shortcomings.

A good example is Malcolm X. After decades of controversy and misrepresentations of his work, much of the mainstream is finally coming to understand his life as one of “reinvention.” Chavez’ biographer Miriam Pawel has made great strides in this direction, but the complex Chavez of her book has yet to fully take hold of our popular historical memory. It is up to us to do our part and fix the misperceptions of Chavez that remain on our campus.

We can collectively learn from those who came before us in a more constructive way by emphasizing the complexity and humanity of historical figures. Refusing to reexamine and humanize the very figures we claim represent our values only hinders progress and our ability to learn from them.

We believe that, if CSUSM claims to value a “diverse and inclusive campus climate” for undocumented immigrants, we should start honestly reckoning with Chavez’ less than savory actions toward them. Hopefully, in the process, our campus will come to know a less superficial Cesar Chavez.

There is still potential for Chavez to inspire our community, but only if we are honest about him.

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