So, I became enchanted with César Estrada Chávez a couple of years ago when I was in a small, crowded cafe in midtown Sacramento. Luna’s Cafe. And my friend, Elizabeth Busch, was one of the musicians performing that evening. There was beautiful music. She plays the guitar. And I believe she had a flutist with her that evening, too. And on the wall behind the musicians there was a gigantic head of some man. I did not know who it was. But as I listened to the music, I studied the painting.
And suddenly, in this painting, I saw before me this person who looked kind, compassionate, purposeful, with a sense of humor around the edges, and like he really saw what was going on.
I had no idea it was César Chávez until I started raving about the painting to one of my friends there who enlightened me.
I kind of knew who he was because there was a park in downtown Sacramento named after him about two or three blocks from my first job where I worked my first two years of college. When I was eighteen, I had asked, “Who is César Chávez and why are there so many places named after him?” (This was in the late nineties. The internet existed, but I rarely “surfed” the internet.) And I heard, “Oh, he was not that big a deal. The state played up his importance for political reasons.” And I have to confess, until recently, I considered Cesar Chavez Day a joke.
I was wrong. I am not saying it should become a national holiday, and I cannot tell you if there are other people who should also be celebrated. But as Christians, we should look to him as an example of faith in action. Of course, the painting hanging in Luna’s Cafe is an artist’s interpretation of the man and what he represented rather than the whole of his soul as he stands before God. I found a recent article by The New Yorker painting him in a jaded light, accusing him of being an inarticulate hypocrite because he apparently liked the word “golly” and had a “vindictive temper.” 1 The author of the article was probably trying to supplement the recent movie, Cesar Chavez, but I did not appreciate the cynical tone, mocking Chavez’s work. If someone is passionate enough to fast for weeks multiple times throughout his life to protest violence, I would expect that person to have a strong sense of anger. What I appreciate is that he channeled that anger to benefit many people, creating a voice for people who were underpaid, over-worked, and deprived of basic necessities during manual labor. He defended the rights of the poor and needy. And he did so while committing to non-violent means.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.
This proverb assumes that the rights of the poor and needy will be assaulted and that the poor and needy will lack the resources to speak up and stop the injustice. People with power and influence, such as King Lemuel, are commanded to use their resources to establish justice for all people and protect the rights of those who cannot defend themselves. Ancient kings acted as judges, so these words were particularly applicable to King Lemuel; however, justice is not limited to a courtroom. As I consider some of the greatest activists (Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and yes, César Chávez), I notice that they were neither kings nor judges. And they were not in the most influential and powerful positions. But they sought to give a voice to people who were living in the throes of injustice.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
I am far from an expert on the work that César Chávez did, nor am I savvy on the current status of farm workers in the United States. And to discuss the pros and cons of labor unions is beyond the scope of this post. But this I know: A free market should not mean free from justice.
Tell me, is it just to offer a person less than a living wage for labor when you have the means to fully compensate him or her? Is it just to take advantage of someone in poverty, who is willing to work for an insufficient wage because it is better to be only half-starved rather than die of starvation? Both the Old and New Testament speak harshly against mistreatment of the poor.
When James speaks of the final justice for the rich who mistreat the poor by defrauding them of wages, do you think he only means not paying them all the agreed upon wage or can the concept of defrauding go deeper, extending to the idea that despite being able to afford to pay their laborers a living wage, they cheated their laborers from all the money they needed and deserved for their hard work? Even if the latter was not intended by James, I think we can deduce from his letter that God hears when people suffer. And if people are suffering because of insufficient wages, God will hold employers responsible. Screw economics. Actually, screw inaccurate economic theories that are contrary to God’s natural law. As one whose education regarding economics is based loosely upon a book or two, I speak lightly, but my hope and suspicion is that one day economists, if they have not already, will discover that the golden rule 2 applies to economics, too.
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
And God is not impressed with actual laws that oppress the poor, either:
You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; thought you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
Systemic injustices displease God.
I love Cesar Chavez because he fought against systemic injustices, against employers underpaying their workers, against apathy, and he sought to establish the cause of the poor. Like God, he listened to the cries of the harvesters.
You should see the movie that just came out March 28th, Cesar Chavez. I am guessing it will not be in theaters long. It received only two stars from Rotten Tomatoes. And why? Because it is too “quaint.” To be fair, The Hollywood Reporter at least said, “the film’s old-fashioned virtues and integrity of the subject matter give it some traction,” despite critiquing the acting and script.
Was the acting bad? In the movie, Michael Peña was a pale shadow of who I imagine César Chávez was. But within a minute, I forgave him for falling short of the painting at Luna’s and was absorbed in the movie. He was still likeable. I also really liked his wife, Helen Chávez, played by America Ferrera. She was so amazing that I did not even recognize her until I saw credits roll. I thought she was some new actress.
The movie itself was absorbing, like reading an interesting non-fiction book. I appreciate that it did not introduce unneeded violence, hype, nor drama. (It did have some violence, but not nearly as much as I expected.) I appreciate that it did not focus on character flaws of César Chávez. The movie is entitled, Cesar Chavez, but the movie is not about him. It is not an exposé. It is about the cause for which he fought. What is exciting about this movie was seeing how improvements and change were implemented despite seemingly monolithic institutions of injustice. It can be done! I also appreciate that the movie shows the many other people who helped to bring about changes. It is not about one man. It is about every person doing his or her part to speak up against injustice.
Watching the movie reminded me of truths I know but am not sure how to implement. I know God cares for the poor and oppressed. But what can I do? This blog post is my meager attempt to speak up and be a voice. So, thank you, for listening.
For more information, check out the website of United Farm Workers.