Gustavo Arellano

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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 ( is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Licenses for Illegals

From the corner of my eye, I saw my car jump off the ground.

I was at the park with my friends debating the finer points of chicken grilling when the sound of a vehicle crashing into my parked automobile spoiled the slightly chilly Sunday afternoon air. We rushed towards the wreckage: a totaled trunk, three flat tires, and a broken axle gushing fluid. Infuriated at the prospect of driving my parents' jalopy for weeks, I confronted the guilty party, a young Latino who slurred, "Amigo, I crashed your car" before drunkenly trying to flee.

My friends eventually subdued the man as I called the police department demanding that they arrest him, not even bothering, in the heat of the moment, to check if he had suffered injuries. He wasn't worthy of attention; he had ruined my day of tranquility and left me with no car. I smirked with glee when the cops finally arrived to take him into custody. I hoped his license would be revoked.

The retributive anger soon turned to guilt, however, when I learned that my wish was already granted, with repercussions far worse than I had desired. My friends told me that as the squad car drove away, the man had tearfully begged the officers to let him go, saying he was an illegal immigrant without a driver's license. Forget prison -- he was going to be deported.

My conscious gnawed at me for allowing the illegal immigrant to be arrested, not only because I played the role of enforcer for policies to which I am opposed, but also because my father had once been in a similar situation. He entered California illegally in 1969, but was able to obtain a driver's license while he was undocumented. It was legal at that time; not until 1994 was the law that allowed it rescinded. My father established a successful career as a truck driver while still illegal -- all due to a laminated card at the center of a national debate that's ostensibly about safer roads but is in reality a humanitarian issue.

Twenty-nine states currently allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses; most of the rest are considering legislation that would follow suit. If passed, the new state rules would only give illegal immigrants the right to apply for a driver's license. They would have to pass the same written exam that citizens currently do, and encounter the same stern driving test to guarantee that unqualified drivers stay off the roadways.

Nevertheless, opposition based on fears of ID abuse has been voiced, with renewed energy since Sept. 11. Allowing illegal immigrants to acquire driver's licenses, the argument goes, opens the floodgates for terrorists to commit identity theft or worse with fraudulent identification. California governor Gray Davis, in vetoing AB 1463 -- a bill passed by the California Assembly last year that allowed illegal immigrants to obtain licenses -- expressed such sentiments, stating that AB 1463 was "an invitation for fraud" permitting criminals to commit crimes at their discretion.

However, citing potential fraud or crimes committed with a false license is a spurious point for denying people the right to drive. Identity fraud will continue whether illegal immigrants are allowed licenses or not.

Besides, opponents forget what my father knew well: a driver's license plays a crucial role in improving the lives of illegal immigrants and their communities. Having the right to drive is an important first step in bettering one's economic status. It would permit these economically important yet largely powerless workers to better integrate into society. With a license, an immigrant has the freedom to go wherever he or she wants, instead of relying on frequently unreliable public transportation or the mercy of others. Keeping illegal immigrants from legally driving contributes to cycles of poverty in immigrant communities.

If I knew at the time of the crash that the man who totaled my car was undocumented and had no license, I would have let him go. Although the damage was substantial, I was fully insured. My car would eventually be returned as good as ever, at no cost to me. The man, in contrast, is probably somewhere in his native country, his American experience ruined by my foolish anger and a foolish law. The maxim, "A driver's license is a privilege, not a right," rings hollow when the privilege is denied to millions of hard working adults living in the United States.

Arellano ( is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.