I’m usually the first one in line when it comes to challenging the iconic God-like status so many of the “leaders” of people of color movements have had. I admire MLK, but he was a womanizing bastard. I identify with the personal and political travels of Malcom X, but he was a patronizing bastard on many levels. I dig the AIM movement and the brown power movement of the 60′s, but did brothas have to be such sexist assholes?
It’s not that I am looking to destroy the legacies of leaders of various leaders–but rather, in creating many legacies, the voices of the people I love, namely (queer) women, are written out, written over, and even destroyed (see Ana Mae Aquash)–and many times details of the men’s lives that are not shameful in the least, are written out to hide the very real intolerance of a community fighting for freedom.
In short, there are important stories to tell about the dark and hidden corners that we try to ignore so hard. Important stories that could help us today to make more complicated, interesting–and more liberating choices for our communities.
In the case of Cesear Chavez–we get an amazing man who dreamed when so many in our communidad simply couldn’t. He organized and inspired and created actual change that affected real human beings.
But he was also a man. Which means he undoubtedly made very human and real mistakes, just as other leaders of the 60s did.
This article touches on some of the existing critiques of Cesar Chavez. But…as I read the article I had a really hard time taking any of the critiques the author mentions seriously. For example, it is mentioned that many organizers today which they had stood up to Chavez for unions rather than going along with him on the dream of a poor people’s movement:
Chief among the lessons we should take from his life is that heroes are human, with real flaws. You follow them blindly at your own risk. The biggest regret that many who worked closely with Chavez now express is that they did not speak up for what they believed in when it might have mattered. They failed to fight to keep building a labor union when Chavez veered determinedly toward his vision of a communal movement for poor people, based on an ideology of sacrifice.
This reeks to me of arm chair game playing. Of the “*WE* didn’t want that, we were only following directions!!” hiding from accountability that runs rampant throughout so much of Latin@ centered organizing. There’s been plenty of time in the past decade or so to restructure and move towards something different. But instead, Latin@ organizers, especially in the UFW community, have been dealing with inner squabbling and rumors of corruption.
Another critique the author mentions is that Chavez was a control freak–to the detriment of his community:
His insistence on absolute control demonstrates a third lesson: When you empower people, they may not choose to wield their power toward the goals you believe they should. Chavez was a risk-taker, and he taught others to take risks. But trusting workers to run their own union was one risk he adamantly refused to take. That cost farmworkers the best chance they ever had at building an effective and lasting union.
The insistence on a centralized charismatic leader is not a new idea or something isolated to the Chicano community of the 60s. The Civil Rights movement also faced similar battles on the place of MLK in the movement–to the point that SNCC leader, Ella Baker, wound up leaving the MLK led faction of the movement. She felt that the “leaders’ of the movement should be the people.
But while the reasons that the black movement disagreed over the place of charismatic leaders in the movement has been discussed and analyzed and adjusted for by historians and organizers alike–the Chicano community in particular has been frozen by a refusal to self-reflect. A lot of this has to do with the very real threats we all still exist under–it is a stated mission of many nativists, for example, to “destroy” the legacy of Chavez (just as racists have tried to do to MLK’s legacy) and thereby destroy any legitimacy that Chicano organizers and activists have within our communities and with white liberals who love a good inspirational figure to latch onto to better demonstrate their “diversity creds.”
But I also think a large part of it is that there simply is no clear “Chicano movement.” It hints towards what several of our discussions here at VL talk about–where is solidarity in the Latino community? Is there solidarity? Is there unity? What is a Latino? What is a Chicano? Do we care about immigration or Labor–or something else all together? What do we do with all the borders that are all over our bodies, our citizenship, our organizing? How do we organize a Chicano identity based movement when so many of our fellow workers are Guatemalans, Cambodians and black?
The politics of our organizing are so complicated–so layered and in many places, completely unanswerable even after all this time–that it’s often times just easier to defend a hero–a name we all know.
I want to know Chavez on a more intimate level. Not as a villain, not as a hero–but as a man who had dreams. But even more importantly, I want his history to be used as a starting point to discuss how on earth we can organize a more focused, necessary and fundamental movement. What didn’t work for Chavez? What did? Why don’t we want to know about a particular fault of Chavez’s? What does this reflect on our movement making possibilities today (for example, do we want to keep queers out because they disrupt our notion of familia? etc)? In embracing a more real and complicated Chavez–we’d be embracing a more real and complicated us.
And what could be wrong with that?