Luis D León. American Quarterly. Volume 59, Issue 3. September 2007.
“It wasn’t that saving my soul was more important than the strike. On the contrary, I said to myself, if I’m going to save my soul, it’s going to be through the struggle for social justice.” ~ Cesar E. Chavez
When Cesar Estrada Chavez (1927-1993) founded the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) in 1962, he concomitantly inspired the Chicano political movement and largely occasioned its attendant cultural renaissance. On July 4, 1969, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine. The accompanying article dubbed him the “mystical” and “earthy” leader of the Mexican American civil rights movement, and the Chicano Martin Luther King Jr. The symbolism of the date, Independence Day, bespeaks Chavez’s psychosocial location: he had become a prophet of U.S. civil religiosity. Today he is unequivocally the most widely remembered Chicano public figure in the United States and globally.
Chavez was broadly recognized for his social justice work during his life, but since his death in 1993, he has been multiply memorialized, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal, celebrated in an official California state holiday, and commemorated in an official U.S. stamp. In 2006, he was counted among the first group of inductees into the California Hall of Fame-the few posthumous awardees included naturalist John Muir, as well as Chavez nemesis Ronald Reagan. Should the movement to establish a national holiday on his birthday prove successful, this honor would be the equivalent of reaching full U.S. sainthood- trumping in significance even the ongoing efforts to canonize him as an official Catholic saint.
At Chavez’s funeral, Art Torres, California Democratic Party state chairman, spoke for millions of Latina/os when he declared: “[Cesar Chavez] is our Gandhi, our Martin Luther King.” Chavez’s political leadership became, even before his death, intimately linked to his larger status in the community as a charismatic leader who, as Richard Rodriguez put it, “wielded spiritual authority.”
This essay explores the nature of that “spiritual authority” and argues for its significance in any comprehensive understanding of Chavez and his importance as a leader for Chicanos. In his national ascendancy, ironically, a distinct but amorphous Christian identity became pivotal in his efficacious campaign for the hearts and minds of Americans. As devotee Gary Soto has professed, “In the course of this movement, Cesar became-whether he accepted this status or not-a spiritual leader for all Chicanos.” In what follows I argue that he indeed accepted this role, albeit with initial reluctance, and that his religious identity, complex and fluctuating, erudite and theological, was central to establishing what Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese bishop Roger Mahoney described as his “prophetic” vocation.
Chavez signified in various religions, though he identified broadly as “Christian,” and he produced an unmistakably Christian ethics. However, his variegated theology has resulted in a religious identity that is ultimately irretrievable as, I argue, he intended it to be. Still, this essay seeks a clearer understanding of his sacred acts as they intersected his political practices.
Chavez did not separate religion and politics into two discrete personal and public dimensions that informed each other. Rather, he melded these two realms into prophetic narratives and practices, directly responding to and engaging the unlikely place of Christianity in American political discourse. Chavez was a prophetic agent in a broadly spiritual, ecumenical, and political sense. He is best understood as a prophet in the particular sense that Max Weber defined: a leader whose vision is not produced in a vacuum, but instead responds from within, outside, and on the boundaries of his inherited tradition.
Yet biographers (especially those writing in Chavez’s wake) neglect his unmistakably prophetic role within American religious and political history, grossly underestimating the level of his intellectual and spiritual engagements. Therefore, as a part of a larger revisionist project, this essay attends first to Chavez’s religious identity, paying close attention to his own philosophies, through writings, interviews, and speeches. The secondary literature on Chavez and the UFW regularly presents conflicting dates and other details. Hence, I rely first on interviews and accounts with the Chavez family and on the documents produced by the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation.
I argue that Chavez’s radical ecumenicalism positioned him beyond Catholicism, and that a closer scrutiny of this positioning allows a revised and enhanced perspective on the intersection of religions and politics in the United States. My conclusion expands on the social ethics of Chavez, proposing a critical model to understand the twenty-first century, waxing not “scientifically” but theologically-that is, as advancing an understanding of the transcendent within the limitations of the temporal and the terrestrial.
I have come to neither praise nor condemn Cesar, but to describe his role in American political religiosity, unpacking and expanding his program for social change, which is, as I see it, a model for social justice. This focus obviates the banal academic mandate to render criticism of the subject in order to prove “objectivity,” as if perfectly neutral. Of course, human perfection is impossible- in my work on Chavez, and in Chavez’s own life-and I simultaneously resist also the impulse to lionize him for certainly he was all too human. Efforts to both canonize Chavez and to condemn him are more interesting for what they reveal about the narrators, and the power of memory and forgetting, than for what they say about the man himself.
A Prophet from the Desert
Chavez was a prophetic agent: a person, a human, who advocates for social change by critical discourses and acts based in religious and moral convictions vis-à-vis the status quo. Certainly he was not a perfect human, an “angel” (as he would say), nor a saint, but a charismatic leader-a leader with a powerful magnetic appeal, according to Weber. Chavez’s authority was not conferred by virtue of an institutional office such as priest; according to many testimonies—including those printed in the New York Times and Time magazine-it adhered naturally. “Natural” charismatic endowment is Weber’s key criteria for the prophetic designation. Additionally, the prophet speaks on behalf of the poor and the oppressed as if bringing a novel revelation from God, or by stressing existing doctrines that have gone overlooked-each resonating with (re)fresh(ed) narratives of salvation.
Prophets typically emerge from out of crisis events that occasion the need for social criticism and change. Many undergo a life cycle punctuated by times of separation, trial, and return, known as the “hero’s tale” or “song.” Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez’s formation replicates in broad patterns classical training for his quasi-religious work. He was born and died in the same county. At the ground base of his struggle was a longing to return to his childhood home, a 160-acre ranch that his father and grandfather built from a parched space of neglected Arizona desert. In 1937, the Bruce Church Corporation engineered a foreclosure of the ranch so the property would be available for acquisition. In addition to the ranch, the Chavez family owned and operated a few small businesses in town that ultimately failed because of the many unpaid accountants they extended to the community, and drought years had cost the ranch a fortune. In spite of the family’s relentless efforts to keep their property, the cards were stacked in favor of Bruce Church, who needed the land to straighten out his property line.
Chavez marks the exile from his homeland as fundamental to his own memory: “I bitterly missed the ranch. Maybe that is when the rebellion started. Some had been born into the migrant stream. But we had been born on the land, and I knew a different way of life. We were poor, but we had liberty. The migrant is poor, and he has no freedom.” His goal was to reoccupy the primal desert soil, which, in a sense, he achieved. He died in his homeland while in the midst of a court trial against the Bruce Church Corporation; his death was pivotal in gaining the jury’s sympathy and favorable decision. His formative childhood experiences of injustice led him down the path to working for social change; through the faith of his family he learned “heroic” and prophetic values.
But young Cesar learned also from stories and books, and the fictions of his life begin with a distortion of this fact. Orthodox narratives of his days start with the misnomer “common man from common origins.” That is not exactly correct, for while poor, his family was never “common,” “simple,” or even “humble,” as in uneducated. His grandmother, Dorotea Chavez, or “Mama Tella,” was raised in a Mexican convent, where she learned Latin and Spanish. His grandfather, Cesario Chavez, or “Papa Chayo,” fought in the agrarian reforms that boiled into the Mexican Revolution, catalyzed by the philosophies of “land” and “liberty.” Cesar’s mother, Juana Estrada, was a woman of uncommon faith. She was a curandera, skilled in the elaborate world of indigenous postcolonial curing. “My mother had a reputation in the valley for her skill in healing,” Chavez notes, “a skill she put to constant use, for she couldn’t bear to see anyone in pain, and there were no doctors in the valley. She was especially knowledgeable in the use of herbs, choosing some to cool a fever, others to cure colic, and mixing brews for specific illnesses. Her faith in her skill was as strong as her belief in the saints and the Virgin of Guadalupe.”
Chavez is careful to position his mother’s indigenous faith as equal in importance to her Christian faith. He credits her for his initial adoption of a theology of peace. “When I look back I see her sermons had a tremendous impact on me. I didn’t know it was nonviolence then, but after reading Gandhi, St. Francis, and other exponents of nonviolence, I began to clarify that in my mind. Now that I’m older I see she is nonviolent.” Cesar’s father, Librado Chavez, taught him to abhor the behaviors associated with the macho racist stereotype, and also taught him to fight for social justice. Librado was uncommonly active in the earliest efforts to unionize farm workers.
Cesar left school at age fifteen, upon graduating from the eighth grade in 1942, in order to return to work the fields full time, thereby liberating his mother from the back-breaking work. This was also a rebellious period in his life, and his identity underwent a brief but conspicuous transformation during his “pachuco” or zootsuit period. He began to smoke, drink beer, and dance: the erotic choreography and uninhibited parties of the pachucos and pachucas gave Chicana/o youth a Dionysian idiom for expressing their alienation and rage. The adolescence of prophetic “heroes” is often characterized by rebellion, followed by a continually morphing personal identity.
In 1946 Chavez joined the U.S. Navy and served in the Pacific. “Those were the worst two years of my life: this regimentation, this super authority that somehow somebody has the right to move you around like a piece of equipment. It’s worse than being in prison. And there was a lot of discrimination.” While in the navy he was exposed to racism and suffering on a global scale, crystallizing his resolve to advance universal justice, beginning at home. This episode marks a phase of total separation from a world in which he was familiar, and immersion into a hostile environment in which he was made to battle and endure an unjust and unrelenting force.
It was during Chavez’s military service that an incident occurred at a local theater that would further impress upon him the urgency of working for democratic morality; this has been called his “Rosa Parks” moment. On shore leave, he was not in uniform.
For a long time, movie theaters throughout the San Joaquin Valley were segregated. It was just accepted by the Mexicans then. In Delano, the quarter-section on the right was reserved for Mexicans, blacks, and Filipinos, while Anglos and Japanese sat elsewhere.
This time something told me I shouldn’t accept such discrimination. It wasn’t a question of sitting elsewhere because it was more comfortable. It was just a question that I wanted a free choice of where I wanted to be. I decided to challenge the rule, even though I was very frightened. Instead of sitting on the right, I sat down on the left.
It was the first time I had challenged rules so brazenly.
He was forced from the cinema and detained in jail. He was not formally charged, and was released after a police officer threatened and degraded him. In the same way, the Chicano movement was ignited largely by veterans who became intolerant of racial discrimination, for such was inimical to democratic values that military indoctrination held sacred. As his response to segregation in a San Joaquin Valley theater suggests, Chavez’s experience in the navy educated him in the religion of the nation-state, especially its transcendent promises of freedom, justice, and equality-until death.
In 1946 Chavez returned to California and married Helen Fabela. The couple settled in San Jose. There he began his role as husband, father of eight children, and a leader in the infamous barrio know as “sal si puedes,” or “escape if you can.” In 1952 he befriended a missionary priest from the San Francisco diocese, Father Donald McDonnell. McDonnell mentored Chavez in the church’s teachings on farmworkers and social justice, involving Chavez in his labor camp ministry and recommending readings for him. Contrary to popular fiction, Chavez continued to educate himself after leaving school, but his apprenticeship with the missionary priest focused and increased his reading.
That same year Chavez met Fred Ross-a man whom Chavez claims “changed” his life. Ross was a forty-two-year-old organizer who worked with the Community Service Organization (CSO) directed by Saul Alinsky. Cesar soon became a disciple of Ross, who secured a position for his young apprentice also as a community organizer. But much of Chavez’s first three years in the CSO were spent isolated in an office working through piles of Western and Eastern classics, accompanied by cigarettes, cans of Tab cola, and a giant, dog-eared dictionary. He read voraciously, including works on photography, art, philosophy, politics, economics, and religion. Typical of the biographers, Peter Matthiessen trivializes his intellect, but reports on his reading nonetheless: “He is a realist, not an intellectual, and his realism has been fortified by extensive acquaintance with political treatises, from St. Paul to Churchill, and from Jefferson to ‘all the dictators’: His self-education, in the CSO years, included readings in Goebbels and Machiavelli and Lord Acton.” His wife, Helen, once expressed her fear when she and her husband came across a bookstore: “I hope it isn’t open. Books and camera stores-he’ll be in there all night.” Today Chavez’s personal library housed at La Paz reflects an impressive bibliographic mind. Indeed, much like Gramsci’s organic intellectual, his erudition was occasioned and nurtured by and within a political movement.
Chavez credits Ross as his most influential mentor; he worked at the CSO under the tutelage of both Alinsky and Ross for ten years before leaving to organize farmworkers on his birthday, October 31, 1962. The date marks a rebirth for Chavez. Like Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa, and King’s return to his home church in Atlanta, Chavez returned to Delano to confront the master beast who had plagued his people for generations. The time had arrived for him to assume the prophetic role for which he had been training all his life.
At its apex, Chavez’s prophecy revealed another of America’s great sins to itself-the national abomination that was the treatment of the farmworkers, laying bare their mass suffering. He tore down the opaque veil that blinded Americans to the injustice in their own backyard-a condition tantamount to slavery in its offenses to the sacred orthodoxy the citizenry professed. In the course of his work, Chavez learned to transliterate racial and cultural politics into public Christianity: “Everywhere we went, to school, to church, to the movies, there was an attack on our culture and language, an attempt to make us conform to the ‘American way,’” Chavez exclaimed. “What a sin!” Chavez’s movement, like American political theology more broadly, captures, reassembles, and synthesizes the confessional fragments of traditional dogmas, capitalizing on the ambiguities and overlaps in their lexicons of the sacred and the profane-all the while appealing to the Deity of reason and nature, revealed by the will of the majority.
Indeed, Chavez was all too human, and he knew that romantic notions of him could not be sustained and would inevitably give way to disillusionment and bitter criticism. Movements animated by the charismatic endowment of their founders are inextricably tied to a singularly ineffable quality. Intense personal charisma cannot be sustained and will inevitably suffer decline, or “routinization”; such was true of the UFW.
Rightly or not, aspects of Chavez’s life and leadership have been publicly criticized: his imperial leadership style, the demands for utter loyalty, and the direction he took the UFW during the latter years of his life-especially the time he dedicated to fund-raising. Yet, early on Chavez described himself as a “practical” man, and recognized that organizations without money are powerless. As he saw it, there were two essential human ingredients for a successful movement, time and money: “An individual who is willing to give his time is more important than an individual who is willing to give his money. I think money would be number two.” In this he took cues from King, but especially Gandhi: “It’s amazing how people lose track of basics. Gandhi was one of the best fund-raisers the world has ever seen! (Laughter.) But people don’t look at it that way! They don’t!” Nonetheless, these fund-raising efforts have recently been condemned. Miriam Pawell of the Los Angeles Times discloses her bias in this regard. After all, why would a social movement need money in the United States? Pawell speaks for many, rushing her righteous indignation: Chavez, like other racialized public leaders, is not allowed to develop and change. Indeed, his image is most consumable when frozen as a striking farmworker holding picket signs, or as a fasting penitent. By contrast, his progression dispels comfortable notions of an isolated problem easily fixed by national paternal care. Chavez cut an imposing figure as an American prophet on the world stage decrying the ideology of capitalism that privileges the rich.
Chavez never claimed that he would remain forever in the fields, organizing workers, picketing, and fasting. In fact, as early as 1978 he publicly declared that his role was more akin to that of a teacher: “I think my role has changed from one of an organizer to possibly one of a teacher … Mostly I want to teach people to initiate and accept change within the movement because we can’t live in the late ’70s with the concepts we had in the mid ’60s. The things we did in 1965 are no longer necessary, valid, or even important.” In 1981, the Los Angeles Times ran a story entitled “UFW Transforming Itself from ‘Cause’ to “Businesslike Union.’” It reported: “Even as a costly modernization program continues, the union stresses its role as a social cause, a near-religion requiring vows of poverty from its top officers, attorneys, doctors, nurses, and even the lowest level of file clerk.” By 1983 Chavez told the UFW annual convention that he had formed a “Chicano lobby” to support Democratic candidates. That same year he addressed a lesbian and gay coalition, called Project Just Business, at Circus Disco in West Hollywood. He was, as has been noted, many things to many people, and he continued to evolve throughout his life.
The Myth of Cesar Chavez
Chavez’s public memory has emerged as a highly contested political field of self-interest and (un)holy constructs. Some scholars and activists, anxious to claim Chavez as “one of the people,” insistently and publicly remember Chavez as a simple, ignorant man with little in the way of self-reflection, religious or otherwise. Luis Valdez and other Chicano political leaders have helped to script this fiction of simplicity and ignorance. “The essence of his [Chavez's] greatness,” claims Valdez,
is his simple humanity. All who had the opportunity to know and work with him in his day-to-day struggle know this to be true: he was not a saint; he was not a miracle worker; he was just a man. That’s why his impact on history is so remarkable. This is the common man, inspiring leader and unforgettable brother that lives.
While most memories of Chavez misrepresent his complexity (especially posthumously), cofounder of the UFW Dolores Huerta disagrees: “But in 1865 Cesar Chavez in American Religious Politics truth, I find him a very complicated person.” Similarly, Stan Steiner wrote of him in 1969: “Chavez is an enigma to many. He is a different man to different people.”
Even inasmuch as Valdez and others remember Chavez singularly as an ordinary man, they clash over the issue of canonization. Fred Dalton’s treatment of Chavez follows the work of Chicano priest and scholar Virgil Elizondo; it reads as a hagiography, professing Catholic identity for “Cesar.” In fact, professions of Catholic loyalty are rampant in the print on Chavez, especially in the posthumous literature, which often popularizes the myth, already circulating in his life, declaring Chavez a “devout” Catholic believer. Dalton writes: “While César [sic] respected other religious and moral traditions, actively promoted an ecumenical spirit within the union, and incorporated meditation and yoga into his own spirituality, he was quite open about his commitment to the [Catholic] Church. Chavez always identified himself as a member of the Catholic faith community.”
In reality, such claims of an exclusive commitment never came from Chavez himself. Although he was baptized Catholic, his catechism was informal and he was schooled in a form of Mexican home-based Catholicism. Attitudes and values toward the church in Mexico stem largely from the anticolonial philosophy of the Mexican Revolution, which rejected the hierarchy as a feudal institution yet which privileged Catholic symbols that had been indigenized and therefore possessed the potential to mobilize masses of people for revolution. Cesar’s formation as a Catholic was informed by this history: he rarely attended mass as a child, but was prepared for confirmation by his grandmother, and was confirmed without formal church instruction. As an adult, Chavez attended mass, but he was also active in many faith congregations-including Pentecostal. Moreover, his Catholic subjectivity became decreasingly pronounced throughout the duration of his work. When asked about his religious identification in his later life, he responded: “For me, Christianity happens to be a natural source of faith. I have read what Christ said when he was here. He was very clear in what he meant and knew exactly what he was after. He was extremely radical, and he was for social change.” He bespeaks a savvy Christian identity with a hearty salute to his Pentecostal and otherwise Protestant followers in his claim to have studied the scriptures. Indeed, his earliest organizing efforts in Delano began in Pentecostal house churches in his neighborhood. He prayed with churchgoers, and there he developed the idea for singing in the union.
Chavez’s spiritual practices were diverse not only within Christianity, but beyond; he was fascinated by the study of and engagement in other religions. Around his neck he sported a Jewish mezuzah. “I’m sure Christ wore a mezuzah,” he once quipped. “He certainly didn’t wear a cross.” According to artist and curator of the Cesar Chavez museum in Phoenix, Jim Covurrubias, the labor leader returned periodically to the Arizona desert to fast privately and to consult with an indigenous healer or curandera. Cesar’s granddaughter, Julie Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Chavez family, explained that her grandfather’s spirituality was manifest as a physical commitment: “His spiritual beliefs affected his diet as well; he was a vegetarian and … became a macrobiotic. Cesar understood embodying the way of nonviolence as centering himself and understanding himself as one with the universe. He was the optimal example of a lifelong learner. I have never come in touch with someone who was so self-aware.” Later in his life, Chavez developed a commitment to the quasireligious practices of Synanon, imposing the “Game” strategy on his union staff-much to the staff ‘s dismay.
It is, of course, impossible for anyone to judge Chavez’s level of faithful commitment to Catholicism, but his strategic intentions are made clear in his writings. In a 1968 academic paper read at a Chicano studies conference, Chavez called upon the church to live out its teachings of social justice.
The Church is one form of the presence of God on Earth, and so naturally it is powerful. It is powerful by definition. It is a powerful moral and spiritual force which cannot be ignored by any movement. Furthermore, it is an organization with tremendous wealth. Since the Church is to be servant to the poor, it is our fault if that wealth is not channeled to help the poor in our world.
In a small way we have been able, in the Delano strike, to work together with the Church in such a way as to bring some of its moral and economic power to bear on those who want to maintain the status quo, keeping farmworkers in virtual enslavement.
Chavez’s reasoning here is logical and sound: the church must practice what it preaches, and because it is rich and globally influential, those resources could be wielded for tremendous advantage. However, these same words have been distorted, twisting the narrative into a magical incantation: “A devout Roman Catholic, he described the church as a ‘powerful moral and spiritual force’ in the world. God controls the earth’s events and people, seeing to it that good causes triumph … Chavez felt that he could be divinely guaranteed of eventual success if he persisted in presenting his righteous case.”
This paternalistic reading completely neglects the historical context for the statement. Three years into the grape strike and boycott, the Catholic Church remained officially “uncommitted,” arguing that their endorsement would bias and thus invalidate their role as presumed mediators between the striking farmworkers and the growers-many of whom were Italian Catholics and major contributors to the church. Yet, Protestant denominations had served farmworkers well before the strike and thus became immediate supporters of the UFW. The earliest efforts began in 1928 with the National Council of Churches Migrant Ministry. In 1957, the California Migrant Ministry crystallized and advanced aid to farmworkers, bringing a newly endowed focus and a director whose activities included enlisting the support of mainline Protestant churches.40 Many churches offered financial support as well as personnel, and the grape boycott was officially endorsed by the California Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and the International Council of Churches. One minister reflects: “In the 1960s and ’70s virtually every major religious body in the United States and many in Europe and Canada gave attention to U.S. farm workers, took positions on what the workers were doing, and were a significant force in rallying 17 million Americans to participate in the common act of not buying grapes.”
Still, the Catholic Church resisted. Chavez formally petitioned the American bishops for their expressed support in 1968, and again in 1969; on both occasions his request was denied. In 1969 the church formed an ad hoc committee to deal with the farmworkers, but it remained officially neutral until the middle of the lettuce boycott in 1973. During this time, however, individual priests and nuns worked for the strikes and boycotts-and to these efforts Chavez has attributed the initial victories of the union. Though the church remained officially neutral, California bishops remained split, some supporting the UFW, others siding with the growers. Catholic groups helped to finance the strikes early on, and individual priests and nuns marched on picket lines in California, defying the church’s position. Whereas many commentators represent Chavez’s simple, almost naive devotion to the church, clearly his actual engagements with Catholic institutions combined religion and the practical exigencies of political struggle.
But Chavez eventually grew weary of the church’s official neutrality. In 1971, Franciscan Mark Day recounted the following exchange.
I asked Cesar about his feelings toward the church one evening, Day recounted, when he and his wife, Helen, had supper at Guadalupe Church rectory with me and some visiting priests.
“Most farm workers are Chicanos,” Cesar said, “and most Chicanos are Catholics. The church is the only institution which our people are closely associated with. When the church does not respond to us, we get offended, and we are tempted to lash out against it.”
“You know,” he continued, “there are many changes in the church today. But many of these changes, like the new ritual of the mass, are merely external. What I like to see is a priest get up and speak about things like racism and poverty. But, even when you hear about these things from the pulpit, you get the feeling that they aren’t doing anything significant to alleviate these evils. They are just talking about them.
“Here in Delano, the church has been such a stranger to us that our own people tend to put it together with all the powers and institutions that oppose them.”
While Dalton and others evince Chavez’s commitment to the Catholic Church with this very same passage, the practical union leader meant it as a criticism and careful mechanism for his own religious positionality; it nowhere represents a buttress for his own Catholicism; nor does his 1968 admonition to the church represent a fatalistic, primitive faith (as some have argued).
There was one occasion when Chavez clearly identified himself as specifically and emotionally Catholic-upon meeting Pope Paul Vl, on September 25, 1974. Chavez did not request the audience, however; it was initiated by U.S. bishops as part of their new campaign supporting the farmworkers. Chavez had been planning a trip to Europe that fall to urge labor leaders there to enforce the lettuce boycott. The flight was paid for by the National Council of Churches. During the visit, Cesar followed standard procedure and kissed the pope’s ring. He then dramatically unfolded a UFW flag and presented it to the Pontiff while photographers shot pictures. Of this meeting Chavez remarked: “I have difficulty expressing its meaning, except that being a Catholic, having a chance to see the Holy Father in person, to have a special audience, is like a small miracle.” The Vatican later made a statement supporting the farmworkers, which Chavez said was the most important aspect of the meeting: “And what was really significant was the statement that he made about the farm workers and the Mexican-Americans in the United States.”
After the meeting, Chavez responded with an enthusiasm that was at once sentimental and pragmatic: he makes clear his emotional identification with the church and his feelings of awe, but he stops far short of claiming that his is a Catholic movement, or that he himself is solely committed to the church.
Chavez was pragmatic in developing a social ethics looking toward the church, especially liberation theology, but not allowing himself to be beholden to it. Efforts to canonize him as a Catholic evince his success in gaining the church as a base of support. At the same time, there are stakes involved in refusing to concede a specifically or singularly Catholic identity to Chavez. Every indication is that he saw himself as far more ecumenical than is often assumed. By contrast, connecting Chavez solely to the institutional church enables his co-optation in support of sundry church positions and projects that he reviled-especially those involving the church’s misogyny, homophobia, and pedophilia.
The Sacrificial Body: Performing Nonviolence
Chavez is best understood as a complex thinker and ecumenical believer, whose political work was deeply influenced by Gandhi, based in the spirituality and philosophy of nonviolent sacrificial struggle for social justice. And nothing exemplifies this commitment so much as his leadership in Delano, the central California town at the heart of the state’s agribusiness. For more than a century, police and local sheriff departments had been deployed as militia forces by growers, who successfully thwarted efforts at unionization and workers’ rights. Chavez’s return to the Central Valley would mark the beginning of change. Intent on forming a union even at great personal cost, he called for a grape boycott in 1965, a battle that was bitterly fought for five years. In 1966 the first union contracts were signed, and the dream of a union was realized. However, negotiating new and lapsed contracts became a series of fierce battles involving endless picket lines and lawsuits.
The fledgling union was dwarfed by labor’s Goliath. Agribusiness was California’s economic giant: it enjoyed the favor of local and federal politicians. Moreover, the initial victory motivated the Teamsters’/Mafia union to compete for deals: they offered growers “sweetheart” contracts that decreased benefits and pay for labor; the Teamsters had previously ignored Chicano fieldworkers. Mafia goons savagely attacked striking women and children, brutalizing them under the gleeful gaze of police officers, who stood nearby idly, gawking. Inevitably, police arrested the bloodied strikers, even while they had been the victims rather than the perpetrators of a crime.
These events drew media attention, and as a result in 1966, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee in Migratory Labor held hearings in Sacramento. The arrest of strikers was a preemptive measure, pleaded the sheriff. This tortured reasoning occasioned Robert Kennedy’s now famous quip: “Can I suggest that in the interim period of time, the luncheon period of time, that the sheriff and the district attorney read the Constitution of the United States?” Kennedy’s support of the union came partially as payback for Chavez’s organizing efforts throughout the 1950s.During those years, Chavez, UFW’s first vice president Dolores Huerta, and activist Fred Ross registered and delivered nearly 300,000 new Latino Democrats in California, making it the most powerful Chicano group in the United States. This campaign coalesced around the “Viva Kennedy” slogan, which is thought to have tipped California’s electoral votes for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Working with the Community Service Organization, Chavez learned the potentials and pitfalls of the democratic process; he never trusted it blindly as a panacea.
As the grape strike continued throughout the late 1960s, growers stubbornly refused to sign contracts and continued to attack strikers. Despite Chavez’s best efforts, retaliatory violence erupted in the UFW, and some of the growers’ properties were burned and goons assaulted. Chavez himself never abandoned his foundational principal, nonviolent sacrificial love: “Love is the most important ingredient in nonviolent work-love the opponent-but we really haven’t learned yet how to love the growers,” he explained.
I think we’ve learned how not to hate them, and maybe love comes in stages. If we’re full of hatred, we can’t really do our work. Hatred saps all that strength and energy we need to plan. Of course, we can learn how to love the growers more easily after they sign contracts.
Certainly he had many sacred models for this political philosophy of love, including Jesus Christ and Saint Francis of Assisi.
Most biographers assert that Chavez was introduced to Gandhi by Father Donald McDonnell in San Jose in 1948. However, Chavez’s own version is more complicated, and also contradictory. In 1975 he claimed that McDonnell introduced him to many books, including Louis Fischer’s Life of Gandhi; he further stated that his exposure to the Indian guru was limited to newsreels and newspapers. In 1990, however, three years prior to his death, he was quoted as follows:
I was eleven or twelve years old, and I went to a movie. In those days, in between movies they had newsreels, and in one of the newsreels there was a report on Gandhi. It said that this half-naked man without a gun had conquered the might of the British empire … It really impressed me because I couldn’t conceive of how that had happened without guns. Even though I had never heard the name Gandhi before … since then, I have made a life project of reading about Gandhi and his message.
The long versions of the stories are reconcilable in all but one detail, and noteworthy especially inasmuch as Chavez was more inclined to cite Gandhi as his muse later in his life. Still, Gandhi’s influence was central to his work from the start. It begins from the following maxim: “Nonviolence also has one big demand-the need to be creative, to develop strategy. Gandhi described it as ‘moral jujitsu.’ Always hit the opposition off balance, but keep your principles.” For Chavez, morality meant consistency in ethics, but moral values could also be deployed for political gain in the public marketplace of ideas.
In this, he also drew from the prophetic tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., whose acumen for narrating public morality revitalized and established fresh grammar for discourses of American civil religion. Chavez and King communicated with each other, spoke on the telephone, and announced their collaboration on King’s Poor People’s March and Campaign in 1968. After King’s assassination, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King were present at many of Chavez’s public actions, including his subsequent fasts in 1972 and 1988. Chavez published an homage to King titled “Martin Luther King, Jr.: He Showed Us the Way.”
King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the 1950s with the messianic and prophetic mission to “redeem the soul of America.” The ideological power of this motivation illustrates the suasion of an American identity embedded in a Protestantism that continues to be reshaped and retold by its most recent professors. In the tradition of the Black Church, King rendered the meaning of Christian redemption from his own experience. Chavez followed suit.
A conception of social evil is possible within many traditions and appears as a formative trope in the politics of Gandhi, King, and Chavez. All three went beyond the boundaries of their inherited traditions and thrived in the spiritual borderlands: King’s pilgrimage to India, Gandhi’s multiple self-religious identities, and Chavez’s radical Christian ecumenicalism combined with indigenous teachings and practices. They all intersected, however, in their commitment to nonviolent social change, coalescing with the organization of workers.
For Chavez, organizing workers required exposing the injustice in Delano to a national audience. To this end he engineered several key public events to transform the UFW from a Western farmworkers union into a (mostly) Latino/a civil rights movement with international fame. By November of 1968, the New York Times described his work as “a civil rights issue” and “a quasi-religious cause”; these events transformed the strike, into “The Cause,” or “La Causa.”
The first event was a march from Delano to Sacramento that was modeled after King’s “prayer pilgrimage” and Gandhi’s Salt March. The march took place during holy week of 1966 and culminated in a massive interfaith ceremony on Easter Sunday. It was called “Pilgrimage, Penitence, and Revolution.” Its charter, the “Plan of Delano,” was penned by Luis Valdez and Chavez and expressly mimicked Emiliano Zapata’s “Plan of Ayala”; it articulated the group’s central articles of faith. Each marcher was literally sworn in, verbally declaring allegiance to the plan while resting one hand on it and holding a crucifix in the other. Dolores Huerta performed each initiation. The plan itself was recited each night of the procession, in “spirited” ceremonies. An avowed “Plan of Liberation,” its religious professions were multiple:
The Penance we accept symbolizes the suffering we shall have in order to bring justice to these same towns, to this same valley … The Pilgrimage we make symbolizes the long historical road we have traveled in this valley alone, and the long road we have yet to travel, with much penance, in order to bring about the Revolution we need.
Theirs was a distinctly Mexican American civil religion: drawn from revolutionary traditions yet consonant with the major teachings of the Constitution, principally freedom and liberty, but also justice, equality, and progress. The UFW added to this creed a motherly femininity embodied by the Virgin of Guadalupe, while emphasizing dynamic human sacrifice. Chavez stressed the sacrificial element: “The thing we have going for us is that people are willing to sacrifice themselves. When you have that spirit, then nonviolence is not very difficult to accomplish.”
Nonviolent sacrificial struggle was the heart of the movement; it was linked with religious symbols to increase its rhetorical appeal. The marchers claimed to “seek, and have, the support of the church in what we do.” However, the “church” is not specifically identified, even while the plan quotes Rerum Novarum—the church’s key statement on justice for workers. Still, the marchers were careful to qualify their relationship to the symbols and orthodoxy of Catholicism: “At the head of the pilgrimage we carry LA VIRGEN DE GUADALUPE because she is ours, all ours, Patroness of the Mexican people. We also carry the Sacred Cross and the Star of David because we are not sectarians, and because we ask the help and prayers of all religions … GOD SHALL NOT ABANDON US.” The plan is rife with God talk, and emerges de facto as its own theological statement. “We seek our basic, God-given rights as human beings. Because we have suffered-and are not afraid to suffer-in order to survive, we are ready to give up everything, even our lives, in our fight for social justice. We shall do it without violence because that is our destiny.” The ceremony ending the pilgrimage was celebrated on Easter Sunday, on the steps of the State Capital building. Governor Pat Brown was not counted among the ten thousand; his absence was conspicuous. He spent the holiday at the Palm Springs’ home of Frank Sinatra.
Even more than the peregrination, Chavez’s fasting impressed the hearts and minds of Americans with the plight of the farmworkers. Chavez embarked upon three public fasts, following Gandhi’s example in number and duration. In 1972 he fasted for twenty-five days in Phoenix, for “social justice.” In 1988, he fasted in Delano for thirty-six days, protesting the use of pesticides. But it was his first fast in 1968, the “love fast,” that transformed his movement from a strike and boycott into a moral crusade and Chavez into its prophet. Again, the symbolism of time, free and accessible, was a central trope in the event: it began on February 14. Like the first fast of Gandhi, Chavez’s actions were precipitated by violence erupting within his own movement: Chavez wanted to recommit the movement to its foundational principles. Ignoring the counsel of his advisors, he told his followers he was embarking upon the fast because he loved them.
During this initial starvation period, Chavez cloistered himself in a small “cell” at Forty Acres, which subsequently became a makeshift pilgrimage site. Chavez stressed the distinct yet broadly religious quality of his actions, preaching the favor of God. Each night an ecumenical “religious ceremony” was celebrated, involving rabbis; Catholic priests sporting bright red vestments adorned by a UFW black eagle; Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalian ministers; and Pentecostal preachers. Of these events Jerry Cohen observed:
I visited the Forty Acres on several occasions during the fast. It was both a fascinating and awesome spectacle to view. By the second week of the fast a sprawling tent city had sprung up around the little service station at the forty acres. Farm workers from all over California came to live in the tents and to share in the event … the deliberate pace, the quiet voices, the huddled figures, the sharing of food and drink-all these gave the impression of serious religious vigil … I’m not religious at all, but I would go to those masses at the Forty Acres every night. No matter what their religious background, anyone interested in farm workers, or with any sense about people, could see that something was going on that was changing a lot of people. The feeling of the workers was obvious. They talked at those meetings about their own experiences, about what the fast meant in terms of what the Union was going to mean to them. That was a really deep feeling, but it wasn’t religious in the sense that somebody like me couldn’t relate to it.
Like that of the nation-state, the religion of the UFW was open to all who professed even secular beliefs in the sanctity of freedom, liberty, equality, and justice-but a belief in a monotheistic God served best to elevate these principles above the earthly terrain into a cosmic arena. People from all backgrounds experienced spiritual conversions through their devotion to the Chicano guru.
The fast was terminated in dramatic fashion, covered by media from around the globe. Senator Robert F. Kennedy returned for the event, and fed bread directly to the leader who had mortified his flesh to enhance reliance on his spirit. In fact, Chavez claims to have received a fresh revelation from God during his retreat that was read aloud during the mass:
Our struggle is not easy. Those who oppose our cause are rich and powerful, and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our own bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as weapons … We must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So 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 [humanity] is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be [human] is to suffer for others. God help us to be [human]!
On this same occasion, Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to Chavez.
As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and goodwill and wish continuing success to you and your members. The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts-in the urban slums, in the sweatshops of the factories and fields. Our separate struggles are really one-a struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity. You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.
During his famed initial “spiritual fast,” Chavez received visitors while he meditated, reposing in a full lotus position. He was asked to explain the fast. In one characteristic response, he pointed to a blank wall. “See that white wall? Well, imagine ten different-colored balls, all jumping up and down. One ball is called religion, another propaganda, another organizing, another law, and so forth. When people look at that wall and see those balls, different people look at different balls; each person keeps his eye on his own ball. For each person the balls mean many different things, but for everyone they can mean something!”
The meaning of the fast, like the movement itself, paralleled the religious dimension of the state in that it was broadly coded, enabling mass appeal. Prior to the fast, Chavez further clarified his motivations in a letter to the to the National Council of Churches: “My fast is informed by my religious faith and by my deep roots in the Church. It is not intended as a pressure on anyone but only as an expression of my own deep feelings and my own need to do penance and to be in prayer.” “Penance” is a Catholic rite, but not exclusively. Again, Chavez deploys circumlocution, positioning, and deft border crossing while emphasizing the ritual’s distinctly religious aspects. Orthodoxy in this case is belief itself, rather than a discrete faith.
Cesar Chavez and the American Faithful: True Believers without True Belief
As a social movement within a democratic republic, Chavez’s campaign was for American hearts and minds. “America is comprised of groups,” he once remarked. “So long as the smaller groups do not have the same rights and the same protection as others—I don’t care what you call it, Capitalism or Communism—it is not going to work. Somehow, the guys in power have to be reached by counter power, or through change in their hearts and minds.” Thus, his appeal was not exclusively to any particular religious group-even while his base was predominantly Christian, and specifically Catholic. He appealed to those religious sentiments around which all like-minded believers congealed, while attaching those amorphous “moods and motivations” to his political cause. He once explained as follows: “See, everybody interprets our work in a different way. Some people interpret us as a union, some people interpret our work as an ethnic issue, some people interpret our work as a peace movement, some people see it as a religious movement. We can appeal to broad sectors because of these different interpretations” Taking my cue from Chavez himself, I interpret his work as a broadly religious movement-one not distinctly Catholic.
Inasmuch as his description of his group is antithetical to a traditional church orthodoxy, it recalls President Eisenhower’s famous one-liner: “America makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious faith-and I don’t care what that faith is.” Comparing King’s SCLC to Chavez’s UFW, one theorist writes: “Both agencies attempted to convince the larger public that the symbols of their respective movements were in keeping with the values of the nation as they had been inculcated into the metaphors of earlier historical situations and became part of the accepted civil religion by the majority.” The prophetic translation and iteration of the American story was central to Chavez’s rhetorical appeal.
Chavez’s vision began with the organization of farmworkers, but he always intended that union to catalyze a much larger social transformation. “And if this spirit grows within the farm labor movement, one day we can use the force that we have to help correct a lot of things that are wrong in this society. But that is for the future. Before you can run, you have to learn to walk.” Learning to walk involved deconstructing the codes that legitimized racism and the mass exploitation and suffering of the many for the benefit of the few; hence, he read, beginning with classical philosophy, economics, politics, and religion. From this he fathomed the moral and ethical foundation of U.S. democracy, and engaged it-a system that is marked by the advances and limitations of the European Enlightenment.
In the eighteenth century Rousseau addressed the ideological limits of a democratic republic voided of its divine right: mass secularization would strip social inequities of the sacred vestments that clothed the status quo in an aura of truth and legitimacy. The naked injustice of economic inequality threatened the peace of society. But rather than proposing broad reform, Rousseau first theorized a “civil religion,” whereby sacred authority would become the manufactured domain of what he called the state’s “spiritual dimension,” through the continuing confluence of history and revelation. Though avowedly secular, the liberal republic could retain its sacred authority in what is perhaps modernity’s greatest sleight of hand: a secular state whose sacred authority is reflexive, or self-generating. In the American democratic system, as De Tocqueville proposed, the authority that the masses once attributed to the Mind of God alone could now be found in the Will of the People, writ large and revealed by the democratic process.
Rather than a sui generis religious system, civil religion is perhaps best described as a national collection of myths, symbols, and rituals that express Judeo-Christian teaching along nonspecific religious lines within national narratives of transcendent significance. The symbols themselves are shadow representations of the majority traditions that can be reflected by minority faiths. Hence, Robert Bellah’s 1965 liberal reprisal of Rousseau is a corruption of the original aristocratic intention. What the French modernist first described was not a self-supporting institution aligned with the state, but a “religious dimension” of the nation capturing and synthesizing mass religious sentiments supporting it. His “civil religion” would function as a mystifying agent of the state that would enable believers to reassemble and affirm the fragments of primitive beliefs, hopes, and fears shattered by enlightened thought within the certainty of their collective. For Rousseau, this spiritual dimension of the republic could free the rulers from devotion to medieval institutions in favor of populist tropes, all the while reproducing the ultimate stakes of heaven and hell as a psychic technique of social regulation. The religion of the democratic republic could suit modern demand for tangibility, efficacy, and participation.
Political discourse in the United States is a triumph of Rousseau’s theories. On June 27, 2005, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia spoke for millions of faithful Americans when explaining his vote to allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed on public space: “It is a profound religious message, but it’s a profound religious message believed in by the vast majority of the American people … the minority has to be tolerant of the majority’s ability to express its belief that government comes from God, which is what this is about.”
For such believers, the state’s divine legitimacy is implicit, allowing it to (re)produce its own discourses of the holy. Devotion to the state was described by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as the “New Idol.” The modern death of God left a void filled by a generalized mysticism that surrounds, shapes, and inflects the democratic process so that it becomes a sacred system. Hence, the principle of majority rule is the process whereby God’s will is revealed. Echoing Rousseau, Nietzsche’s prophet declared that all nations invent and speak their “own tongues of good and evil.” The history of the twentieth century has repeatedly proven the efficacy of this tool as a mechanism of mass political suasion-even while its patent abuses are obvious and repetitive. Bellah and other liberal twentieth-century theorists have promoted the deist rendering of modern national religion as a tongue for good, celebrating a consensus social spirituality and ethics indebted to Enlightened principles of justice and equality. In this way they overlook the great suffering and injustice legitimized by religious nationalism.
The danger of a nation-state dedicated to popular spiritual beliefs manifests in self-interested, myopic forces that concomitantly manipulate love, fear, and hatred into a Christian theocracy. As President Jimmy Carter warns: “Although considered to be desirable by some Americans, this melding of church and state is of deep concern to those who have always relished their separation as one of our moral values.” For better or worse, state constructs of the sacred fall short of tight control over effervescent moods and motivations, and therefore new and unorthodox spiritual energies are continually produced. Conversely, antihegemonic religious stories circulate throughout the population within, outside, and in direct opposition to churches and other institutions functioning as regulatory mechanisms.
Religious nationalists have invested in modern normative models of human subjectivity; at times, racial and erotic identities are attached as appendages to grand economic, political, and cultural narratives. Ironically, civil religion is also a democratic field of social relations, and the complicated truths of race, gender, and sexuality rupture the architecture of the state’s version, opening new spaces to theorize the nation, beginning with the most primal element in statecraft-the human body and soul. Racism begins from a narration of a “natural” order to the world, delimiting a hierarchy of races crafted through Enlightenment discourses. Gandhi, King, and Chavez confronted these racializing narratives, demonstrating that people of color are equally children of God.
In this way, Chavez’s fasts proposed his own corporality as the metonymic national body upon which to imprint a fresh template of virtuous being. His body was broken and suspended in a deathlike state before a resurrection to enliven a praxis of new life and national redemption. His explanation for the fast, “love,” strengthens the allegorical tie to the sacrificial Christ-a signification not lost on most observers. Chavez redefined God and the national good for an American community of believers (and make-believers).
Mapping the Spiritual Line for the Twenty-first Century
There is no small irony in the coalescing of religion and politics into the civil rights movements of the second half of the twentieth century-a century ushered in by the “death of God.” Religious authority emanating from church pulpits does not flow securely into the hands of government officials, no matter how successful the politician or party. Instead, democratic impulses continually disestablish religious boundaries, thereby establishing the conditions for spiritual dominance to circulate as so many individuals’ and groups’ will to power. America’s most remembered leaders thrived from this reality, King and Chavez foremost. At best, they functioned as theologians of American civil religion who moved the national logos against racial intolerance, toward the promise of universal Christian grace. But the pendulum continues to swing.
On the current coalescence of religion and politics, President Carter warns: “It is the injection of these beliefs into America’s government policies that is cause for concern. These believers are convinced that they have a personal responsibility to hasten this coming of the ‘rapture’ in order to fulfill biblical prophecy. Their agenda calls for a war in the Middle East against Islam … At this time of rapture, all Jews will either be converted to Christianity or be burned.”
To this warning Sam Harris adds: “Many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible … most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse.” For Harris, religious designations and their attendant oppositional identities are divisive and immoral beyond the faulty logic of other social cleavages: “Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics ever can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments.”
Chavez’s work and the current religious state of emergency in the United States lead me to conclude that the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the spiritual line, an ideological border delineated by social constructs separating good from evil, saved from damned, straight from gay, Christian from Muslim, Muslim from Jew, and the religious from the secular. This is not to say that race is no longer a problem. Rather, racial hatred is now further complicated, receded, and recast in a drama starring saints and sinners. No government or individual legitimate in the eyes of the world can openly sanction racial hatred. Yet, they all respect religious difference. Chavez’s religious politics were thus prescient regarding our current religious crisis. In narrating his own nuanced spiritual identity he mitigated the insistence on fundamentalist belief, rightly attributing to religious identity the randomness of birth: “To me, religion is a most beautiful thing. And over the years, I have come to realize that all religions are beautiful.” Here he echoes the famous aphorism of Gandhi: “All religions are true, and all contain error.” Hence Chavez advanced multiculturalism before it became an academic industry.
In contrast to religious leaders confident in their ability to judge the difference between sinners and saints, Chavez recognized the continuing fall of the human condition (including, of course, his own) and its need for redemption, a spiritual conversion: “We need a cultural revolution. And we need a cultural revolution among ourselves not only in art but also in the realm of the spirit.” Chavez knew that in the United States, democratic change arises from the soul of the majority and that that soul could be touched and informed-transformed—by religious discourse emerging from prophetic agency. Yet religiosity was only one tactic he deployed as a key dimension of his arsenal. The quintessential organic intellectual, he was armed with many discourses, including religious and constitutional, and tactics, including strikes and boycotts. He further recognized that strategies need to change and develop following the vicissitudes of history. In this regard, he cited Gandhi’s rendering of “moral jujitsu. Always hit the opposition off balance, but keep your principles.”