TODAY IS CESAR CHAVEZ DAY, celebrated in honor of the Mexican-American activist and organizer who created the United Farm Workers union. Chavez has become something of a folk legend in the United States, thanks to his use of nonviolent protest, his advocacy for the United States Latino community, and his support of some of the country’s most marginalized workers and immigrants. He died at the age of 66 in 1993. In 2014, President Obama (who, incidentally borrowed Chavez’s popular chant, “Si se puede,” or “Yes we can,” for his historic 2008 election) named March 31st Cesar Chavez Day.
In honor of Chavez’s legacy, we’d like to recognize some other Mexican-Americans who have worked to make the United States a better place.
It’s impossible to mention Cesar Chavez without mentioning his UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta in the same breath. Huerta grew up in the farm worker community of Stockton, California, where she became politicized when she saw children coming to school hungry and without shoes. She decided to dedicate her life to fighting economic injustice, and began working for the Community Service Organization in Stockton. It was through this work that she met Cesar Chavez, and together, they orchestrated the historic Delano Grape Strike, which was aimed at grape growers who were refusing to pay their migrant workers minimum wage. The strike lasted five years, with Huerta organizing a country-wide boycott of grapes, until it finally resulted in a victory for the United Fruit Workers.
Huerta’s activism has continued throughout the course of her life: she has fought for women’s rights, education, health care, the environment, and for economic equality. She has since been given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was named one of the most important women of the 20th century.
Hector P. Garcia
Hector Garcia Perez was born in Mexico in 1914 and immigrated to the US with his family when he was three to escape the violence of the Mexican revolution. He became a doctor and went on to join the army as a medic in World War II. When he came home from the war, he realized that many Mexican-American veterans were having trouble accessing benefits from the Veterans Administration, so he started the American GI Forum.
Because of the group’s patriotic background, it was not infiltrated by the FBI, as many other Latino groups at the time were. This latitude made it so that the American GI Forum could make a huge difference for Mexican-Americans in the US. They campaigned against industries that exploited migrant labor, they fought for better health conditions in poor schools, they protected minority civil rights, and they ensured that war heroes of Mexican descent didn’t have to be buried in segregated graveyards, and, indeed, could be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Music and activism have always gone hand-in-hand for the Queen of American folk music, Joan Baez. Baez was raised in New York, and was subject to ethnic slurs due to her Mexican heritage while growing up, and this, along with her Quaker background, led to her lifelong activism and pacifism.
Baez has lent her beautiful singing voice to countless causes, such as the Civil Rights movement, the LGBT movement, anti-war movements, human rights campaigns, the fight against the death penalty, to Occupy Wall Street. Baez’s music and activism have put her on the right side of history for over half a century.
Dr. Alfredo Quiñones Hinojosa
Alfredo Quiñones Hinojosa was born in a village outside Mexicali, and, when he was 19 years old, he crossed the border illegally into the United States looking for work, despite the fact that he didn’t speak a word of English. While working on farms, he saved enough money to take English classes, and eventually worked his way through college, through Harvard Medical School, and through a neurosurgery residency. He is now a professor of neurosurgery and oncology at Johns Hopkins University, and is one of the most respected brain surgeons and researchers in the country. He is also now a US citizen. Dr. Q, as he’s called, is a living example of the importance of immigrants to the United States, and is at the same time a quintessential American rags-to-riches story.
Jorge Ramos has no contemporary equal in English-speaking American journalism. Ramos holds dual citizenship in both the US and Mexico, and he is probably the most trusted Spanish-speaking journalist in the country. He’s been the anchor for the Noticieros Univision program for 30 years, but he’s recently become more prominent in English-speaking America as one of the first journalists to have the spine to stand up to Donald Trump after Trump’s racist remarks towards Mexicans and immigrants. As the English-speaking mainstream media has failed to confront the racism and bigotry coming from the American right wing in any meaningful way, it has become clear: the voice of truth in America is speaks in Spanish.