3.31 Honoring César Chávez

Today we celebrate César Chávez Day. Here’s a guest post from Mike Roque, a longtime organizer and fundraiser, and GIFT’s first Executive Director.

by Mike Roque

César Chávez was born March 31, 1927 in Yuma, AZ. Eight states currently celebrate César Chávez Day along with many cities. One day, Chávez will be the first Latino to be honored with a national holiday. Chávez is best known as one of the co-founders along with Dolores Huerta of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). But was also one of the best fundraisers in the country and proved that community organizations could be supported by the communities they serve, even if they are low-income.

Chávez started his activism as a Community Organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO) under the leadership of legendary organizer Fred Ross, Sr. Chávez often talked about the lessons learned from Ross, including the need for community members to take ownership of the organization through dues. Chávez often told the story of doorknocking for the CSO and asking farm workers to pay membership dues of $3 per year per family.

One day he came upon a family – mom, dad, and six children – living in a one-room shack. He told them about the CSO and what they were trying to do, he mentioned the work they had already done, and then asked them to join by paying $3. The family indicated that they supported the work of the CSO and wanted to become members but didn’t have the money. Chávez knew that even if they had the money, he would literally be taking food from the children.

He often said one of the hardest things he ever did in his life was to walk away that day without that family becoming members – this from a man who had been beaten by police, led hunger strikes and endured years of hardship throughout his life. For you see, he could have been liberal and said that because the family was low-income (in this case, extremely low-income, well below the poverty level even for the 1950s), he would allow them to become members without paying the dues. But, he did not and walked away that day not knowing what might happen to that family. A few weeks later the CSO was holding a general membership meeting and the entire family came and paid their dues and became some the strongest leaders in the organization.

I think about this story often as I hear from organizations over and over how they cannot ask their supporters for donations because they wouldn’t want to embarrass them because they are low-income. I even hear people of color say “their people” don’t give. They don’t give because they are not asked. Low-income people make decisions every day about how they spend their money. By not asking them to join in partnership in supporting a great organization doing great work, they are disempowered yet again by the very groups seeking to empower them.

I spoke with Tony Garcia, Executive Director of El Centro Su Teatro, the third oldest Chicano theatre company that emerged from the United Farm Workers struggle. I asked him what lessons he learned from César Chávez and the farm worker movement. He said, “César proved that you can ask your community to support you, they will take ownership and you can ask for anything. Use the same organizing principles – one house at a time, one donor at a time.” SI SE PUEDE!