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Chicano Activists Risk Hijacking Cesar Chavez Legacy

As California observes Cesar Chavez Day for the first time April 1, let's make sure the great man's legacy isn't hijacked for years to come by the very community fighting hardest to preserve his memory -- Chicanos.

The state holiday is a good beginning, marking the nation's only declared public holiday in memory of a labor leader. Schoolchildren will learn about the eighth-grade dropout who became one of the nation's most prominent icons for the rights of workers by engaging in non-violent tactics such as boycotts and marches. Chavez's aim was to improve conditions for farmworkers in California's San Joaquin Valley, but his work brought attention to the rights of the lowest-paid agricultural laborers to fields as far away from the Golden State as Florida.

His legislative canonization comes after years of diligent work by his admirers, who in recent years have successfully imprinted his name on schools, parks, and streets from San Diego to Sacramento.

But this legacy building is coming at a disturbing price: Chavez's wide relevance. Although he was first and foremost a humanitarian concerned with the rights of farmworkers, Chavez's spreading fame now rests mostly on being recognized as a Chicano, a term with political overtones used by many Mexican-Americans to describe themselves. Chicano activists have claimed Chavez in a way that narrows what the humanitarian stood for.

Here in Los Angeles, Chicanos have renamed UCLA's prestigious Chicano Studies Center in Chavez's honor, and immortalize him as a principal player of the Chicano rights movement of the late l960s and early 1970s. Because Chicanos have been the driving force behind the construction and maintenance of Chavez's legacy, last year's approval of the state holiday by the California Assembly was seen in Sacramento as a strategic gesture of goodwill towards the Latino electorate. That bloc is not necessarily the same as the Chicano voting bloc, but tell that to politicians, who see only "Latinos," the forever "sleeping giant" of national politics.

Unfortunately, promoting Chavez as above all a Chicano icon makes his commemoration a shell of what it might potentially be. His appeal should be wide because anyone, no matter what ethnic community he or she belongs to, can identify with what Chavez the labor organizer fought for: decreased use of carcinogenic pesticides, health benefits and increase in wages for farmworkers, the right of all workers to organize, to name a few. But only self-identified Chicanos are drawn to the image of the Chicano icon; consequently, many non-Chicano Latinos -- not to mention the wider California population -- may mark the holiday with little more than a shrug.

How could the legacy of Chavez become irrelevant in his own state? Especially at a time when California is going through dramatic demographic change that will make Latinos -- the group that is supposed to revere him -- the majority ethnicity in the coming decades?

During the days of his fight in the fields, "Latino" in California meant Mexican in origin, immediately able to identify with Chavez's invocation of cultural symbols like Mexico's patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the corrido, a traditional Mexican song form used to tell stories. Since the Central American wars of the l980s, however, Mexican immigrants have been joined by huge numbers of El Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans. Economic and other woes in home countries have also drawn Argentines and Colombians. None of these "Latinos" identify themselves as "Chicano." They have no immediate cultural solidarity with the legacy of Cesar Chavez.

Indeed, Chavez as a labor leader, a voice for the voiceless, would be a most appealing hero to these immigrants and other Californians. However, the Chicano establishment, composed mostly of leftist students and professors, is not allowing this. They have not learned from African American activists, who, when constructing the legacy of Martin Luther King, took great strides to emphasize his struggles for civil rights as a whole, rather than strictly ethnic interests. By constantly tying in Chicano cultural signifiers such as Aztec dancers and Mexican folkloric dancers at ceremonies honoring Chavez, activists merely reinforce the notion that Chavez belongs to Chicanos only.

The caretakers of Chavez's memory must ensure that his true legacy -- not an imagined one -- is communicated to inspire all of us in the struggle for a better world. As the man himself said, "When you have people together who believe in something very strongly -- whether it's religion or politics or unions -- things happen."

PNS contributor Gustavo Arellano (gustavoa@ucla.edu) is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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