Two stories shape our lives: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the master social narrative that defines our relationships and roles within society. A defining moment for people of color and women comes when they recognize they either are not included in the dominant social narrative or are belittled and disempowered by it. When people in marginalized groups offer what’s known as a “counter narrative,” they open up new worlds of possibility for themselves and others in their group. I’ve always been most inspired by those with the courage to bring forth a counter narrative that creates a new social narrative into which I could step. This series of stories features such people. I hope you find them as inspiring as I have. For more on the importance of the stories we tell—and believe—about ourselves, and the power we can claim when we re-author those stories and offer counter narratives, please see The Power of Counter Narrative.
A photograph of Cesar Chavez holds a place of honor in the home of Chris Cavanaugh-Simmons. The framed photo hangs on a wall in her kitchen where she can see it every day. It shows Chavez standing at a podium in the 1960s, addressing a group of his followers in the farmworker movement. He’s raising his arm to make a point. The shadows and lighting in the photo make his arm look like it’s on fire with all the fervor of his powerful soul.
Chavez (1927-1993) had a gift for political theater of the type captured in that photo. Many other amazing photos of him can be found online—breaking a fast with Robert F. Kennedy, marching on a highway in California with agricultural fields in the background, speaking in front of an American flag with a “No Grapes” button on his shirt, smoking a cigarette at the headquarters of the National Farm Workers Association with a large statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the background, hauling a shovel and rake on his shoulder, and standing in a jail cell in Monterey County in 1970 when he refused to call off a boycott of non-union lettuce.
These photos, and a hundred more, tell the story of the most celebrated Latino leader in U.S. history. He was an activist, labor organizer, and seeker of justice for American farmworkers. Influenced by Gandhi and various others, “he fasted to the point of death,” writes labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan, “staged mass marches up and down California that resembled religious pilgrimages, and defeated growers with nationwide boycotts that even Gandhi would have found hard to duplicate.”
Many idealistic young Americans joined him, including Cavanaugh-Simmons. She was in her early teens when Chavez emerged in the national spotlight, exactly the right age for his message to stir her to action.
She first learned about Chavez at three-day retreats conducted by activist priests and nuns. The retreats were formally known as “Cursillos in Christianity.” Their intent was to teach laypeople how to be effective Christian leaders. The Cursillo Movement began in Spain in 1944 and came to the U.S. in the first half of the ’60s—just in time to connect with the young and fervent Chris Cavanaugh-Simmons. (The Cursillo Movement is still going strong today; over the years it has generated similar movements in other denominations.)
“I attended several Cursillos,” Cavanaugh-Simmons recalls. “What I say today is, I went to ‘Catholic Dissident School.’ My parents apparently thought I was going to be on my knees all weekend at these events, but instead I got introduced to progressive politics and the call to Catholics to stand up and support those who were being discriminated against, or who had less. The message was very similar to what Pope Francis is saying today.”
Cesar Chavez was born into a family that moved from crop to crop in California’s vast San Joaquin Valley. They picked cotton in the autumn, lettuce in the winter, and cherries in the springtime. In summer they picked grapes—wine grapes, table grapes, endless boxes of grapes. They also picked tomatoes, walnuts, apples, broccoli, asparagus, and sugar beets. From California came more than 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S., most of it picked, sprayed, trimmed, and girdled by migrant farm laborers—“anonymous toil,” writes author John Gregory Dunne, “under a blistering sun” (or in the raw chill of winter).
Young Cesar Chavez hit the labor road at age 10, living in labor camps, cars, and tents, attending several dozen schools, and getting a seventh-grade education.
In the late 1940s, when Chavez was in his early 20s and fresh out of the Navy, he began studying the life of Gandhi and the social justice ideas of the Catholic Church. His first political work came in the early ’50s when he organized voter registration drives among Mexican-Americans. In the early ’60s he co-founded the National Farm Workers’ Association (later known as the United Farm Workers) to help laborers get raises from the $1 an hour they were typically paid. The movement was his life for a number of years. He sought not just better wages for workers but respect for their efforts.
The union launched its first major strike in 1965, propelled by a walkout by Filipino-American farmworkers in the area of Delano, California. The California Grape Strike (also known as La Causa) was a five-year struggle, one of the most significant labor actions in U.S. history. It was ultimately successful, helped by an international consumer boycott of grapes. In 1975, California enacted the groundbreaking Agricultural Labor Relations Act. (Chavez was actually rather ambivalent about this legislation.)
Cavanaugh-Simmons was part of grape protests organized by the local activist priests and nuns in Oakland, several in the parking lots of Safeway stores. One time she got on a school bus in Oakland with a large group, led by priests and nuns, and went down to Watsonville to march with Chavez and many hundreds of others. She caught a glimpse that day of Chavez, his distinctive energy and aliveness. “I saw people’s commitment up close and personal,” she says. “I saw very clearly the devotion that people had toward him.”
Chavez was spiritual, an advocate of non-violence. He had a “sense of quiet power,” said one observer. His voice was soft. He listened deeply. Influenced by Gandhi and Catholicism, he conducted fasts, including a 36-day fast in 1988, when he was in his 60s, to highlight the negative health effects of pesticides. The 2014 film “Cesar’s Last Fast” is a good record of the event and of his life.
The 1988 fast weakened him dramatically—in fact, it almost killed him—but he saw the tactic as essential.
“A fast,” he wrote, “is for the purification of my own body, mind, and soul. The fast is also a heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all those who work beside me in the farm worker movement. Together, all things are possible.”
America in the 21st century lacks a large-scale farmworker organization. But Cesar Chavez remains a hero to millions of people—Latinos and Latinas, labor activists, progressive-minded people globally.
Thomas Geoghegan wrote in 2014, “At a time when the have-nots have less and less, Chavez may have more and more to teach us. Like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, Chavez may be one of the last Americans who thought creatively about a national ‘poor people’s movement’—and the kind of disruption that might get a response from the country’s elite.”