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Reinventing Cesar Chavez


Last Sunday was Cesar Chavez’s birthday. The United Farm Workers, founded by Chavez in 1962, marked the occasion by organizing five pro-immigration reform marches throughout California. Other groups organized Cesar Chavez Day events in San Antonio and Phoenix that shared the pro-immigration reform theme. The irony is that during most of his tenure with the UFW, Chavez was virulently anti-immigrant in his public and private lives. He led his union to campaign for the deportation of undocumented workers and, at times, even green card holders became targets.

Over the last couple of decades, the racist, xenophobic right has invoked Chavez’s unsavory history with immigration in their efforts to delegitimize the immigrant rights movement. Us leftists have typically come to his defense. We do need heroes after all. Of the countless people of color who have stood up for workers, all but a few have been written out of history. But even more than our need for heroes, we need a critical analysis of the past that can inform our current and future organizing.

The latest Chavez apologism comes from an article on Latino Rebels, which draws on excerpts from a few books addressing the union leader’s views on immigration. The author concludes that Chavez only opposed immigrants brought in as scabs during strikes, that he wasn’t responsible for the UFW’s Minutemen-like patrolling of the Arizona-Mexico border, and that he ultimately came to support immigrant rights in 1974 when he outlined his views in a letter to the San Francisco Examiner. But Frank Bardacke’s book Trampling Out the Vintage (reviewed in Counterpunch last year by Saul Landau) documents Cesar Chavez’s aversion to all undocumented immigrants, not just strikebreakers, and pursuit of pro-deportation campaigns that can only be described as vicious.

Cesar Chavez began anti-immigrant campaigning during a strike at the Guimarra Vineyards in 1967. Some of the strikebreakers were undocumented. Others were green card holders who were prohibited from working at struck businesses under existing regulations. As part of the strike campaign, Chavez led a march of 150 union supporters to a federal building in Bakersfield to demand that the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrest non-citizen workers. The INS soon conducted a series of raids in the area, arresting 500 undocumented workers, 62 of whom were employed by Guimarra.

In May of 1974, Chavez proposed the “Campaign Against Illegals”. In a memo sent to all UFW offices, Chavez informed staff of

“the beginning of a MASSIVE CAMPAIGN to get the recent flood of illegals out of California… We consider this campaign to be even more important than the strike, second only to the boycott. If we can get the illegals out of California, we will win the strike overnight” (emphasis in original).

On May 20, Chavez presented the Campaign Against Illegals to the UFW’s executive board. Bardacke notes that the meeting’s minutes indicated no dissent from board members. At Chavez’s direction, the UFW’s national headquarters distributed forms to its offices in California, Florida, and Arizona that staff were to use for reporting undocumented workers to the INS. Fresno’s border patrol alone received more than 2,600 names from the UFW, though it only arrested 195 of them. Chavez also urged supporters to call their Congressman demanding more INS enforcement, then testified before Congress urging the same, and also gathered 40,000 signatures in a related petition drive.

Chavez’s correspondence with UFW staffer Liza Hirsch in June of 1974 reveals that his disdain for undocumented immigrants went beyond his perception of them as strikebreakers. Hirsch presented a flyer to Chavez’s approval with Spanish text
saying “the union isn’t against illegals if they don’t work where there is a strike”. In a letter dated June 25, Chavez writes that the flyer is “a bunch of shit. We’re against illegals no matter where they work because if they’re not breaking the strike they’re taking our jobs.”

Among the most infamous events of the UFW’s history was the so-called “wet line”. During a strike of lemon pickers led by Cesar Chavez’s cousin Manuel, the union was losing due to some strategic errors as well as a court injunction preventing workers from picketing near the growers. Manuel switched tactics and set up a paid vigilante border patrol group of several hundreds of men to intercept potential scabs coming in from Mexico. There are many stories of violence against border crossers, but only  two patrol members were charged with assault. It is unclear how involved Cesar Chavez was in the patrol. He clearly knew it was happening, as the UFW published accounts in its newspaper and Chavez visited Yuma at least once during this period. In fact, Chavez had first proposed the idea of using “civil disobedience” to stop border crossers during a strike in 1968. In 1979, he told a New York Times reporter, “We had a wet line, it cost us a lot of money, and we stopped a lot of illegals… If [violence] happened, I know nothing about it.”

In late 1974 and early 1975, pressure was mounting on Chavez and the UFW to change their hardline position against undocumented workers. Some staff refused to participate in the Campaign Against Illegals. The National Lawyers Guild and CASA, a prominent Mexican American organization, publicly rebuked UFW’s anti-immigrant stance. The union had to do damage control as a result of the bad publicity, particularly to protect its urban boycott coalition. In November, while the wet line was still patrolling the border, Chavez wrote the aforementioned open letter to the San Francisco Examiner stating that the problem really was just with strikebreakers and that he supported legalization for undocumented people in the United States. The Campaign Against Illegals ended in early 1975.

But Chavez’s gradually softening position was not so heartfelt. In March of 1975, during another Executive Board meeting, minutes indicate that Chavez called the National Lawyers Guild “rats” and suggested they were CIA saboteurs after the Guild criticized UFW’s immigrant rights positions. By 1979, Chavez was at it again. He testified before Congress twice to demand an INS crackdown on undocumented strikebreakers. An article in US News & World Report noted his ‘nuanced’ views, stating, “Chavez sees no conflict between his demand for a crackdown on the strikebreakers and his union’s support of amnesty for illegal aliens. He says the union still favors amnesty for illegal residents who have built roots in this country, but seeks a strong enforcement program to stop employers from bringing workers over the border to break strikes.”

It was only during the early years of the Reagan administration and the push for immigration reform that the UFW substantially changed its position on immigrants. By that time, UFW was already a shell of what it had once been. Its membership had declined to a fraction of what it had been a decade earlier and it had become more of an advocacy organization than a union. The organization had to work with other civil rights groups and was finally forced to acknowledge the demographic reality that most California farm workers were undocumented. The UFW adopted generally progressive positions on immigration reform, calling for the rapid legalization of those already in the US without papers and against exploitative guestworker programs. In 1982, the UFW sued the INS for conducting raids that Chavez said were meant to intimidate workers in the run-up to union certification votes.

But even during the 1981 to 1986 push for immigration reform, Chavez was no great champion of the cause. Dolores Huerta was the UFW’s main spokesperson on the issue. There were very few newspaper quotations of Chavez speaking on immigration. In one instance during 1984, Chavez was slated to speak at an immigrant rights march in Los Angeles. At the last moment he sent Dolores Huerta in his place.

Justin Feldman is a writer living in Washington, DC. He blogs at

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