On Human Strength and Climate Change: Thoughts on Chavez Day

March 31, 2014 | 4:07 pm
Adrienne Alvord
Former Contributor

It’s now officially Chavez Day in the State of California, in honor of his birthday on March 31st. Someone suggested that I write a blog connecting Chavez Day with how climate change will affect farms and farmworkers, and that’s what I set out to do. Science tells us that climate change will indeed wreak increasing havoc on the agricultural industry — heat waves that can and do kill people, as well as crops and livestock; water shortages and/or floods; new plant diseases and pests; and seasonal changes that will affect crop viability. But as I commenced writing and remembered that long-forgotten day it dawned that there may be a more important point about what Chavez represents applied to climate change.

A Long Time Ago In Sacramento

To a small child growing up in the excitement of California in the late 1960s, Sacramento was a boring, embarrassing place to be from; a hot, flat hick town (“Sackatomato” thanks to the signature crop). Even being a state capital didn’t help, as stodgy politicians did not compare to the new, cool, hip California of the Sunset Strip, Haight-Ashbury, Malibu surfers, Monterey Pop, and scary but intriguing Berkeley radicals. Even our first movie star Governor didn’t help as he clearly belonged to a different world than ours (and to a kid he was really just another stodgy old guy.)

One morning as my dad drove us into the downtown area from our home in the suburbs I saw a large group out the car window, more than I could count, spread out for blocks and blocks. Many were holding signs with words and symbols in red and black and some sort of big bird. Some were walking quietly together with their placards, but many were lining the streets holding up their signs and happily pumping them at passing cars like ours — and they had such smiles. Decades later I have a strong imprint of those big, joyful smiles, shouting slogans I couldn’t understand.

As a current-events geek even then I knew this must be some kind of demonstration or peace march like on the news, which was quite exciting, as news happened other places, never in my town. TV demonstrators usually looked terribly serious and sometimes they looked angry. But the people I saw on the street in Sacramento on that day didn’t look angry- far from it. Some were jubilant. I asked my father who they were and he told me they were the workers who picked the crops in the fields that became the food on our table. He said they were on a strike —refusing to work — because of someone cchavezalled Cesar Chavez.

Chavez Day

We honor Cesar Chavez as a civil rights and labor leader because he led a movement that organized some of the poorest, most powerless workers in America, mostly Mexican and Filipino migrant workers. The strikes he led and the marches and fasts he undertook (along with savvy political maneuvering) eventually brought collective bargaining power, though fitfully and incompletely, to agricultural laborers. The long walk, or “perigrinación” (pilgrimage) he led in 1966 in support of striking grape workers over a 300-mile stretch of Highway 99 from Delano to Sacramento, with a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe leading the marchers, was brilliant political theater, but it also had real power. Even a child could feel it.

It’s fascinating history but, alas, complicated. Chavez’s life and the history of the UFW is not a fairy tale. Inter-union conflicts and industry resistance took a big toll on early union gains. Some farmers felt they were unfairly treated and portrayed by the union. Chavez died too young, worn down by the struggle. Still today farmworkers along with many others suffer a big deficit in the odds when it comes to winning better wages and better working conditions.

But whatever Chavez’ ultimate political legacy, what I think we remember is that there was a long moment when some of the poorest and most powerless people in America succeeded in taking some control over the quality of their jobs, their fair compensation, and their lives, because the moral weight of their cause and their steadfastness together outweighed the wealth and influence of one of the most powerful industries in the nation. I wonder if we can learn something from that.

Can We Do Better?

Increasingly polls confirm that people are really concerned about climate change, but confused or apathetic about what can be done about it in the face of fossil-fuel industry money and influence in government and their own perceived dependence on fossil energy. People feel powerless.

This is sad, because there are real solutions — now, today. Some are technological — cleaner energy and vehicles, mostly — that have a promising though still fragile foothold in our energy portfolio. State policies, notably California’s AB 32 are making a difference, and President Obama’s EPA utility performance rule is a great start on reducing power sector emissions, while his proposed Climate Resilience Fund in the federal budget can help protect us from impacts. Personal behavior can also help lower our emissions. UCS has recommended ways that Americans can cut their household emissions by at least 20% if they make adjustments to their behavior and consumption. And if we create the right conditions and are lucky we may find a great new energy technology or some geo-engineering miracle.

But is this enough? We need to move very quickly and make very big changes very soon if we are to avert some of the worst consequences of climate change. The task is enormous.

For those of us who share the conviction that decisive near-term action is necessary to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, have we done enough to demonstrate the steadfast courage it takes uphold our conviction? Outside of a relatively small number of activists, are we too comfortable to do what it really takes to demand a different way that is better for ourselves and our children? And if we don’t want to be “activists” in the traditional sense, do we really lack the creativity to figure out other, powerful ways to bring about change? If some of the most disenfranchised people in America could do it, why can’t we? (And you know, they walked.)

So I want to step away for a moment from our usual preoccupations to contemplate the example set by this man and his movement. And I want to remember what caught my childhood imagination in Sacramento all those years ago. It was not labor policy, or social justice, or the price of tomatoes. It was the sheer joy and dignity that comes from standing up, standing firm, and standing together for what you know is right.

Happy Birthday, Cesar Chavez.