Will the real Cesar Chavez please stand up?

By Page Forrest

Managing Editor

Alternating between Mexican-American deity and the antichrist of business, it’s difficult to get a clear picture of Cesar Chavez. In “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” Miriam Pawel finally brings to the life a realistic portrait of California’s most well-known community organizer. On April 16, Pawel, biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, spoke at Sewanee on “Cesar Chavez: the Man, the Myth, the Legacy.” Right off the bat, Professor Register’s introduction accidentally displayed two mischaracterizations most Americans hold regarding Chavez. Pawel was quick to correct Register in a good-natured fashion. “First, he never thought of himself as a labor leader… not in a prominent way. From the beginning, he was a community organizer. And second, it’s pronounced ‘Cee-sahr’ not ‘Say-sahr.’ I know we have a tendency to overcorrect for the proper Hispanic pronunciation, but Cesar was American born.” She went on to explain that the director of the 2014 film “Cesar Chavez” was asked why the name was pronounced “Cee-sahr” in the movie, and the director just told the audience “Well I went to interview his wife, and she pronounced it ‘Cee-sahr’ and that’s good enough for me.”

Pawel went on to explain Chavez’ life, in order to give the audience a clear picture of her subject. “You know, it’s interesting. He’s such an important part of recent American history, but so few people know who he is. Both students and farmers alike remain unaware of Chavez’ impact on union history and the farm community.” However, there is one prominent man in America who remains clearly aware and appreciative of Chavez’ impact: President Barack Obama. In 2008, Obama’s campaign slogan was “Yes we can,” the English translation of “Sí se peude,” a saying popularized by Chavez. Since his election, Obama has also named the last of the 14 Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships after Chavez, and erected the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument within the National Park system. Pawel was quick to point out parallels between Chavez and Obama. “You know, it’s not out of the question that his use of the Chavez legacy was a way to reach out to the Hispanic community, but I can also see President Obama identifying with him a lot, having worked as a community organizer for so long in Chicago.” Obama’s fascination with Chavez is only part of the legacy the man has inspired, which also includes a state holiday (March 31) in California, Colorado, and Texas, and nominations from the American Friends Service Committee for the Nobel Peace Prize while he still lived.

The tone of Pawel’s book, praised for its balanced portrait of Chavez, shone through during her lecture. The man she presented was both dedicated and erratic, wise and un-educated, having only gone to school through 8th grade. Pawel’s understanding of Chavez restores the community organizer to the status of human – not someone to be idealized or vilified, but respected and studied for his place in history.