by David Kopel
April 8, 2001, Rocky Mountain News
Cesar Chavez is now an official
State of Colorado hero, with a holiday on March 31. Yet as the Chavez Day bill
moved through the legislature, was signed by the governor and became law,
neither daily newspaper gave readers much of an idea why Chavez was so important
- and so controversial.
The most "in-depth" information about Chavez was about 150 words in a March 22 article in The DenverPost, reporting House passage of the Chavez bill. Much of the biography in that article was just a verbatim repetition of some language from a Post editorial the previous day about Chavez. (And I do mean verbatim; the article repeated virtually two entire paragraphs from the editorial.)
The only things that came close to feature pieces on Chavez himself were a Post column by Jorge Amaya about meeting Chavez in Colorado, and a Rocky Mountain News story that included several paragraphs on a Coloradan who met Chavez twice.
Although the newspapers did offer quick litanies of the boycotts that Chavez led, neither paper effectively explained why Chavez was any more significant than dozens of other American labor leaders. The answer is that before Chavez, farmworkers had been routinely exempted from fair labor laws. Chavez's efforts, beginning in the 1960s, to unionize grape workers in California were a major step forward in bringing union rights to farm workers.
In 1966, Chavez's United Farm Workers signed the first labor agreements ever between farmworkers and farm owners in the continental U.S. The contracts required clean drinking water and rest periods, among other benefits.
Chavez's campaigns led to the 1975 passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act - the first law in the nation to guarantee farmworkers the right to form unions and to bargain collectively.
The Post and the News did report that Chavez augmented his national grape boycotts with warnings about pesticides. But neither paper reported that these pesticide warnings were criticized as hoaxes designed to bludgeon California grape growers by terrifying consumers. The California Environmental Protection Agency conducted tests which concluded "most testable grapes from the fields have no chemical residues. Residues on the rest were well within allowable ranges . . . "
The papers did note that Chavez took a public stance of non-violence - although no specifics were supplied, such as Chavez's 1965 rule that members of his United Farm Workers sign a pledge of non-violence.
Neither paper informed readers that Chavez and the UFW didn't always follow the tenets of non-violence. For example, as reported by the Village Voice (an alternative weekly newspaper in New York City), the UFW was so angry about illegal immigrants from Mexico taking jobs away from UFW members that Cesar's brother, Manuel Chavez, set up what they called "the Wet Line" in Arizona, to catch incoming illegal aliens. The Voice reported that "the UFW conducted a campaign of random terror against anyone hapless enough to fall into its net."
On the non-violent front, Chavez and the UFW picketed the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, demanding that the INS crack down on illegal aliens, according to a recent article in the California Political Review. It would have been interesting if the papers had asked some Chavez holiday supporters what they thought about that part of Chavez's career.
Chavez's successes in the 1960s and 1970s were followed by decline. As the on-line edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes: "Trouble brewed within the UFW, which Chavez ran with an iron hand. Most of Chavez's top aides eventually resigned, and some of them formally charged him with staffing the organization with members of his own family. Chavez also developed interests in holistic medicine, encounter programs, vegetarianism, meditation, faith healing, and other rituals that he tried to press upon his official members. Union membership declined until union workers represented only about 10 percent of the pickers of California's table grapes."
Of course, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Christopher Columbus had their own personal flaws, and they've been given state holidays. So my point isn't to argue for or against a Chavez holiday. But if official holidays are going to fulfill their function of showing the people models of good citizenship, then the papers ought to devote more attention to the significance - and to the complexities - of official state heroes.