Ordinary People, Extraordinary Things: A Reflection on Cesar Chavez's Legacy

"The job of a leader is to make ordinary people do extraordinary things."

Nowadays it's hard to remember this.  You think you need gobs of dólares à la Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, proving that today, a leader's electability is tied more to his ability to rake in the cash than by the quaint notion of good, sensible ideas.  And of course, there's Facebook and Twitter, the daily Olympics of self-promotion, telling everyone how great and perfecto my life is--¡I landed this opportunity!  ¡I'm going on that vacación!

[Few of us EVER share how: I got passed up for this, how I actually tried collecting an outstanding moral debt (how horrible) just to have it kicked down the road with, "I'm in the same boat, but if I come across anyone who can help, I'll pass along your 411."]

"The job of a leader is to make ordinary people do extraordinary things" are words repeated again and again by César Chávez, said Dolores Huerta, who co-founded with Chávez the United Farm Workers union fifty years ago as field hands fought for more protections--you know a toilet to use after hours of back-breaking work, clean drinking water in ba-zillion degree weather (which leads to needing a bathroom), not having DDT sprayed on you while you pick the fruit and vegetables that nourish America's kitchen tables.

That she is a firecracker who frequently zips around the country karate-chopping injustice in her path and whipping youngin's bootays who can't keep up with her, well, that's another post.


At the renaming of the main auditorium at the U.S. Department of Labor after César Chávez, I wondered how this humble man (whose family acknowledged would have been uncomfortable with this spotlight) would feel that this commemoration was happening while comprehensive immigration reform is stalled in Washington.  This impasse between the federal government and states has given birth to a climate of persecution, fear, and an erosion of civil rights and basic American principles of dignity and equal opportunity in parts of our nation.

I also thought about the politicians who know how to get a crowd's juices flowin' with strategic ¡Vivas! or ¡Si se puedes!, but then return to their offices to cut deals that amount to D-barely-passing-by-a-thread-work.

I guess that's the difference between activism and policy, a truce that acknowledges, let's just pass this law, and we can make it better--laters.

"Waiting for César Chávez" could be the name of a future documentary about the Latino community's search for the next great leader who will at once bridge all our differences of class, culture, ethnicity, race, socio-economics, politics, and educational attainment--plus not threaten the mainstream because she speaks perfect Ivy-league English.  You know, equally down with los vatos of East L.A. AND the ricos of Pasadena.  (Anyone want to ask our post-post racial Prez how that's goin'?)

But César wouldn't have wanted another César Chavez.

He would have wanted many César Chávezes, someone said.

"Waiting for Many César Chávezes" doesn't have that same Hollywood ring to it.

Maybe, THAT'S it.

Maybe if each of us, in our own way, practice being informed and involved, if not everyday, close to it, that taking a picture of me in my bubble gum pink hoodie to post on my Facebook page isn't as effective, in the long run, as the daily and challenging solidarity of mentoring a young boy or girl, that selling Girl Scout cookies while registering people to vote isn't mutually exclusive.

Yes.  "The job of a leader is to make ordinary people do extraordinary things."

As it appears in in Fox News Latino where I am a regular politics columnist.

Civil Rights and Labor Movement Icon Cesar Chavez Honored

By: Viviana Hurtado

¡Sí Se Puede!--Yes, We Can--echoed throughout the halls at the U.S. Department of Labor.  The standing-room only crowd, their applause, and chants of a simple mantra born of the farm worker strikes fifty years ago electrified the main auditorium as it was renamed the César E. Chavez Hall of Honor.

The co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union and civil rights icon admitted that in his lifetime, he would likely not see a national union for these laborers.  And although this is one of the movement’s unfulfilled goals, the commemoration is at once an honor for Chávez’s work and should serve as an inspiration for the struggles ahead, such as more protections for field workers and comprehensive immigration reform which is stalled in Washington, says Paul Chávez, son of César and leader of the National Farm Workers Service Center.

“If you look at my dad’s example, frustration should only lead to activism and the desire to change this.  The solution lies in our hand,” Chávez told Fox News Latino.

This honor comes on the 50th anniversary of the UFW and through Chávez recognizes the thousands who fought and continue to battle for decent working conditions such as access to clean water and toilets, prohibiting the spraying of pesticides while workers are in the fields, as well as the use of DDT and other toxic chemicals.  The ceremony also made special mention of the “UFW martyrs”--Nan Freeman, Rufino Contreras, Nagi Daifallah, Juan De La Cruz, and René López--who were killed while picketing or trying to organize a union during the farm worker strikes of the 1970s and 1980s in California’s Central Valley and south central Florida.

Chávez’s teachings which mixed those of civil rights icons Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi have inspired thousands to work to advance social justice and equality for all.  Still, members of the Chávez family acknowledge that this attention would have made the humble activist uncomfortable.  UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta reminded the audience that the best way to honor her colleague’s memory is by leading through his example of commitment and peaceful action.  “Leadership can be learned, not taught,” she said.

Called a “national treasure” by master of ceremonies and actor Michael Peña who will play César Chávez in an upcoming film devoted to his life and work, Huerta, now heads a foundation bearing her name that advocates for more access to clean water and education, including passage of the DREAM Act which would put on the path to citizenship illegal immigrant college students or service members.

Although César Chávez day on March 31st is not a federal holiday, his memory is being honored with a variety of educational and community service events held throughout the country.

Click here to read my other Fox News Latino politics columns.

I was "extraordinary" when I mustered up the courage to launch this blog with the intention of lifting up Latinas. When were you extraordinary?