God is manifested through God’s people. It’s always me and God and you and all people, never just me and God. If it’s just me and God, then we get into trouble. It’s me and God and you and everyone. Always.

Cesar Chavez, in John Dear, A Persistent Peace

As an American prophet, he declared the full humanity of Mexican Americans, demanding their corollary civil rights as if announcing a fresh revelation from God.

Luis León, The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez

The most famous photographs of Cesar Chavez are of him breaking his twenty-five day fast by taking Mass with Senator Robert F. Kennedy or leading marches. Chavez was a master at crafting his own image, and even after his death, the Latino labor leader’s national notoriety has only continued to grow: the next generation of labor leaders have sought to make his birthday a national holiday, the Barack Obama presidential campaign borrowed Dolores Huerta’s and the United Farm Workers of America’s phrase “Sí se puede,” and President Joe Biden placed Chavez’s bust in the Oval Office.[1]

The picture that I am fascinated with is the grainy image recently tweeted by Elaine Brown, former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party. Accompanying the photo is the following tweet: “Today, we who believe in freedom, celebrate the life of our Brother César Chavez, who lived for the People and died for the People, who never wavered from fighting for the human rights of all people.” The reason I like this image so much is that it contains a simple message.

Brown and Chavez are both smiling, yet Chavez already looks like an old man in the photo. There is exhaustion in his eyes. Many of his biographers point out that it is likely that his three major fasts took decades off of his life.[2] Brown’s tweets continue: “The Black Panther Party and the United Farm Workers were allies in this struggle, proudly standing together, black and brown united! Let us never forget. Viva La Raza! Viva César!” Her declaration pinpoints what makes Chavez such a fascinating activist. First, he was clearly dedicated to the farm workers’ movement, and, second, he did not let this focus take away from his commitment to human rights that were outside the context of the farm workers’ movement.

Chavez explains: “Our belief is to help everyone, not just one race. Humanity is our belief.” In our era of Black Lives Matter, Chavez’s public alliances with Black groups provides a historical example of faith-based, constructive coalition building, one that he learned from contemporary Catholic nonviolent activists like the Berrigan brothers. He was a Latino public face who preached equality and justice for all human beings and sought alliances with those who had often been denied such dignity. As nonviolent activist John Dear points out, Chavez “shows us how to be human.”[3] But being human means striving and making mistakes, and so considering the legacy of Chavez means acknowledging all of his legacy, including the ways in which he fell short of his own beliefs, the ways in which he now appears to be oblivious to a community within his own movement.

In her eye-opening book To March for Others, Lauren Araiza’s research brings to life the active coalition building that characterized Chavez’s movement, particularly in regard to his openness to both nonviolence and armed self-defense. Chavez often explained that “nonviolence is really tough. You don’t practice nonviolence by attending conferences—you practice it on the picket lines.” In other words, Chavez recognized the difficulty of a nonviolent commitment and understood why other groups embraced self-defense.[4] Araiza’s book might seem surprising given that these types of coalitions are rarely discussed in the average US history textbook, biographies of Chavez, or Chicano/a and Black literature.

Why the relative silence? First, biographies of Chavez tend to focus narrowly on Chavez rather than broadly interrogating the many intersections between Chavez’s life and other ideological groups. This usually places Chavez studies within the boundaries of Chicano/a studies and creates further distance from other types of literature.[5] The same might be said about Black Panthers literature or religiously themed books. Araiza’s book challenges this specialization by better addressing historical context and nuance.

Second, Chavez was most active in a different time and space than the major events we associate with the Civil Rights Movement. He was operating on the West Coast, thousands of miles from Martin Luther King Jr. or the political world of Cold War Washington DC. Our national memory tends to be selective even when it comes to King, minimizing his work to include only issues of race, so imagine the difficulty of remembering or fully appraising Chavez’s organization, the United Farm Workers of America, especially since their major achievements took place years after the major boycotts and marches that we associate with King.

Given the ways in which we put leaders like Chavez or King into specific boxes, it is no wonder that we miss how Chavez was more concretely involved with groups like the Black Panthers than King. Franciscan Louie Vitale, who marched and fasted with Chavez, notes that the two were growing closer before King’s murder, and Chavez received support from King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, as well as King’s closest associate, Ralph Abernathy.[6] Chavez admired King—he hung King’s portrait in his office, and he penned a telegram to King’s widow after his murder, saying, “We owe so much to Dr. Martin Luther King that words alone cannot express our gratefulness”[7]—yet Chavez and King never met in person.[8]  Nevertheless, because of their mutual principled stances on nonviolence, the popular imagination connects Chavez and King as fellow travelers. In short, when we simply label Chavez the Latino MLK, we erase Chavez’s own legacy and the key partnerships he formed outside the immediate circle of King’s influence, including with groups like the Panthers.[9]

Indeed, under Chavez’s leadership, the United Farm Workers made alliances, for example, with the Black Panther Party, for their own sociopolitical goals. In some ways, the experiences of poverty that affected both groups managed to bring them together. One of the reasons the Black Panthers supported the farmworkers’ boycotts of Safeway supermarkets was because the markets refused to donate to the Black Panther community food programs. Likewise, the Panthers were committed to provide food, health services, and education to a community often ignored by US society—that was exactly the type of program that Chavez could get behind. And for all the celebrating that is done over the successful negotiations between the farm workers and the growers, Chavez stumped for Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale’s mayoral campaign because he knew the growers would try to subvert even the smallest victory organized labor had won.

One way to understand Chavez’s receptivity to the Panthers is in his admiration for Malcolm X. Chavez admired that Malcom was a good organizer and that he never compromised, especially because Malcolm “came from the gutter.” At one point, Chavez explained to an interviewer, “The approach that Malcolm X used was the house meeting. He was doing those things that we know pay: being patient and just accumulating, committing people and so forth. He’s gone, but his spirit continues.”[10] For Chavez, Malcolm’s method of small personal meetings with the people of the movement was a good model for the United Farm Workers to follow. Even though Malcolm was famous for his commitment to armed self-defense, this did not stop Chavez from seeing Malcolm’s work as important and worthy of imitation. His support of the Black Panthers throughout the 1970s continued this trend.

Chavez’s alliance with groups that did not match his commitment to nonviolent activism reminds me of Christ’s words in Mark 9:38–40. There, one of the apostles points out that other people apart from Jesus’s disciples were performing miracles in his name; he fears losing power in Christ’s movement. Christ’s humble response is to welcome good work no matter who is performing it. Likewise, Chavez was willing to welcome a diverse cast of allies, to branch out and support activists whom he might disagree with on the finer points of sociopolitical action. Chavez recognized that if we are too committed to the purity of our principles or our methods, we will miss out on concrete, pragmatic connections with potential allies and on valuable accomplishments that might be impossible within our narrow cadre.

Another part of Chavez’s legacy that we miss when we consider his work in the narrow context of Chicano/a studies is the role of faith in his efforts. This tendency is a part of a larger erasure of the ongoing work of the Civil Rights Movement into the 1970s, including the work of Scott King, Abernathy, Chavez, Huerta, and others, who remained committed to nonviolence. This happens when we privilege the radical reaction of the late 1960s or when we think of religion as unimportant or declining—we fail to recognize how the principle of nonviolence had much of its genesis in Christianity.

Likewise, many Chicano/a studies or religious studies writers seem to neglect the significance of Chavez’s Christian background. Nevertheless, Richard Rodriguez asserts that we must see Chavez primarily as a Christian mystic: “I think Cesar Chavez would have said striving to lead a holy life is the point—a life lived in imitation of Jesus Christ, the most famous loser on a planet spilling over with losers.” Chavez’s life was built around fasting, meditation, and prayer: he was a modern ascetic. Rodriguez suggests that he was so passionate about his ascetic ritual that it could distract him from focusing on the material gains for the labor movement. And some Christian social justice advocates appear to consider Chavez an exemplar of Christian nonviolent activism; in Robert Chao Romero’s Brown Church, he dedicates an entire chapter to Chavez’s example as a “faith-rooted activist.”[11] Vitale gives a holistic definition of Chavez that is worth quoting in full:

Chavez’s life and work always reflected the fact that he was first and foremost a farmworker who spoke from the point of view of a very oppressed working group who put food on the table of a very affluent nation. Cesar was an organizer, founding a union of the migrant poor that won the respect and active support of big labor. Hispanics hail him as the one who gave them dignity and respect in the land of their origins where they had been excluded from their entitlements. Church spokespersons acclaim Cesar as a prophet, one who told it like it was on behalf of God’s oppressed peoples.[12]

Important clues about Chavez’s spiritual praxis hang on his office wall: photographs of Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers, Catholic social activist thinkers who were committed to nonviolence.[13] Chavez appreciated the Berrigans’ commitment to nonviolent activism even at great personal cost. In a speech at Hunter College early in 1971, Chavez declared that the Berrigans’ protest illustrates that “in a manner after Jesus they have cast their lives with the poor and the oppressed.” A little over a year later, an incarcerated Phil Berrigan responded to Chavez’s support, writing: “I think it helped immeasurably—the knowledge that people who had suffered far more than us for the mere right to work in dignity—were thinking of us.”[14] Both Chavez’s and Berrigan’s understanding of suffering reflects the sociopolitical dimension of US society and committed Christians’ role in transforming it. They believed in a radical form of Christian nonviolent activism in contrast to the voices espousing revolutionary violence that did not see the sanctity of all life. Both Berrigan brothers would agree with Chavez: “Examine history. Who gets killed in the case of violent revolution? The poor, the workers. The people of the land are the ones who give their bodies and don’t really gain that much for it.”[15]Sadly, late twentieth-century history would prove Chavez right. Moreover, committed nonviolent activism in the manner of Jesus is an ideal that is difficult to live out; many find public success in the devotion of peacemaking while other sins like pride creep in to tarnish the ideal.

Despite Chavez’s success in coalition building, his legacy must also incorporate some of his failures to maintain cohesion in his own labor movement, especially with Filipino farm workers. Filipino labor leader Philip Vera Cruz points out how the history of Asian American activism has been superseded by Chavez’s own narrative, becoming a “minority within a minority,” which is ironic since it was the Filipino farm workers who began the 1965 Delano strike, not Chavez. Vera Cruz, like Chavez, wrote articles for the Catholic Worker, and in those commentaries, he linked the Filipino activists to the same Catholic nonviolent social movements led by Chavez. In one such article, Vera Cruz points out how the Mexican-Filipino alliance in the Delano strike represented a difference from the segregation of workers based on ethnicity on the farm growers’ land. The farm union was supposed to provide an example of a democratic, multiracial commitment to a common cause. Instead, Vera Cruz asserts, “Many of the Filipinos just quit the union because they didn’t feel they had an equal voice.”[16] What made Chavez unable to hear these voices?

Chavez’s mystical spirituality endeared him to his partisans and attracted volunteers, but it may have created distance between Chavez and his colleagues like Vera Cruz. John Gregory Dunne believes it was the “saintly virtues” that caught the media’s attention, and without them he would have been forgotten by history. Perhaps he overstates Chavez’s spirituality, but some writers have suggested that this austere mysticism progressed into a form of authoritarian “megalomania.”[17] Did too much saintliness make Chavez unapproachable?

The last straw for Vera Cruz was Chavez’s visit to accept an award from the Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, an unpopular move within the movement.[18] Vera Cruz would soon quit the union, and Chavez’s stubbornness would not escape the notice of the Berrigans. In fact, Dan Berrigan would hold Chavez accountable to Chavez’s own historical witness. Berrigan points out that the testimony of the United Farm Workers was the “passion and clarity” of Chavez’s testimony and that meeting with a “torturer and abrogator of human rights” had now compromised the movement. Berrigan’s scathing letter supports Vera Cruz’s own account, revealing the way Chavez enlisted some Filipino advocates to explain his trip to his critics; these critics are who Berrigan calls “religious people who think for themselves.” Berrigan declares: “To imagine it . . . Cesar Chavez on a platform with fascist fast talkers, repudiating, through them, your best friends. Repudiating, it would seem, your own conscience.”

Chavez had become so immovable about his own decision-making that he took a core group of the farm workers movement for granted and compromised his principles by meeting with a dictator. Even the condemning words of the Berrigans could not make Chavez publicly renounce his actions or make him realize he had sided with a political force that was harming the oppressed within his own movement.[19] In this instance, we see how Chavez’s pragmatism to work with groups that differed from his commitment to nonviolence turned into compromise. Moreover, this happened during a time when Chavez experimented with a mysticism not rooted in Catholic social teachings that distanced him from constructive criticism.

The history of Chavez’s activist faith is still being written. A sanitized version of this history, one which does not take seriously what Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano calls Chavez’s “complex legacy,” does not help anyone in the future. A more honest view of history would include praising Chavez for his work with Black groups while also critiquing his mishandling of his own labor movement, especially in the context of Filipino workers. Moreover, the historical narrative of social activism—including the role of faith—desperately needs to be updated to include more representation of groups like the Filipino farmworkers, who are often rendered invisible in US history textbooks. Finally, Chavez’s mistakes should not distract from how his commitment to nonviolence is still being practiced today. As Chicana activist Elizabeth Martinez explains, “The criticisms cannot negate basic truths about César: he never sold out, he was never bought off, and he never gave up in his profound commitment to los de abajo—the underdogs.”[20]

I was reminded of this message as I was recently wandering around Santa Ana College. I stopped to observe the giant mural there dedicated to Chavez and the movement he began. I thought then of Eliseo Art Silva’s mural, Filipino Americans: A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy, the largest Filipino mural in the United States. In the mural, images of Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong tower over Chavez and Huerta. It seems somehow fitting—even murals that honor activists like Chavez can retell the story of the underdogs and help us think of news ways to remember our history.

[1] I have adapted the title of this essay from John Dear, Put Down Your Sword: Answering the Gospel Call to Creative Nonviolence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 128; and Louie Vitale, Love Is What Matters: Writings on Peace and Nonviolence (Oregon, OR: Pace e Bene, 2015), 110. For more on Chavez’s use of images, see Mario T. García, The Gospel of César Chávez: My Faith in Action (Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward, 2007), 121; and “Cesar Is Released from Jail,” El Malcriado, January 1, 1971, 5. Chavez seemed to pragmatically embrace the use of images by his movement. For example, upon his incarceration, some of the farmers’ wives made an altar in the back of a truck that contained a shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the flags of Mexico and the United States, and pictures of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Chavez.

[2] Brown (@sistaelaine), Twitter, March 31, 2018, 5:08 p.m., https://twitter.com/sistaelaine/status/980235352580546561, archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20210709151515/https://twitter.com/sistaelaine/status/980235352580546561. Chavez’s commitment to fasting even reached Vietnam and the nonviolent activism of Thích Nhất Hạnh and Chân Không: “We thought of the way Cesar Chavez had put it: ‘When someone stops eating for a week or two, people come and want to be part of the experience.’” See Marjorie Hope and James Young, The Struggle for Humanity: Agents of Nonviolent Change in a Violent World (New York, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), 211.

[3] Brown (@sistaelaine), Twitter, March 31, 2018, 5:08 p.m., https://twitter.com/sistaelaine/status/980235351750053888, archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20210709152158/https://twitter.com/sistaelaine/status/980235351750053888; García, The Gospel of César Chávez, 131; and Dear, Put Down Your Sword, 130.

[4] See Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers (Pennsylvania, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017); and García, The Gospel of César Chávez, 79. Also, William Stringfellow points out the historical conditions of white violence and that even ten years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence was not enough to eradicate it. See Stringfellow and Anthony Townes, Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005), 108–9.

[5] There seems to have been a shift in the scholarship in recent years. See Natasha Varner, “How Japanese and Mexican American Farm Workers Formed an Alliance that Made History,” The World, August 15, 2016, https://theworld.org/stories/2016-08-15/how-japanese-and-mexican-american-farm-workers-formed-alliance-made-history; and Frank P. Barajas, Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012) as examples of the long legacy of Japanese and Mexican American farm worker alliances in California, which is another aspect to consider when putting Chavez and the UFW in context.

[6] See Luis D. Leon, The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014), 107–13; and Araiza, To March for Others, 139. For a recent comparison of the theories of nonviolence between King and Chavez, see José-Antonio Orosco, Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 97–113.

[7] Chavez, “Western Union Telegram,” El Malcriado, April 15, 1968, 5. On page 4, this issue also contains King’s telegram to Chavez.

[8] For the relationship between Chavez and King, see Huerta’s insights in Camille Jackson, “‘There Is No Such Thing as Can’t’: Interview with Dolores Huerta,” Duke Today, January 13, 2013, https://today.duke.edu/2010/01/doloreshuerta.html; Vitale, Love Is What Matters, 110; and Gordon K. Mantler, Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960–1974 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[9] An example of Chavez’s overlooked commitment to uniting with other freedom fighters is found in Ignacio M. Garcia, Chicanismo: The Forging of a Militant Ethos among Mexican Americans (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 31.

[10] Chavez, An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches, ed. Ilan Stavans (New York, MY: Penguin, 2008), 111

[11] Rodriguez, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography (New York, NY: Penguin, 2014), 136; and Dunne, Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 197; and Romero, Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latino/a Social Justice, Theology, and Identity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 121; also, see Jason Steidl, “The Chicano Movement in the US Catholic Church: Grassroots Activism and Dialogical Ecclesiology” (PhD diss., Fordham University, New York, 2018), 32–91 for a recent study of Chavez’s activist Catholic faith. For Chavez’s forgotten legacy, see Jeremy V. Cruz, “César Chávez and Egalitarian Ethics: Lessons from a Contradictory Legacy,” Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 13, no. 1 (2019): 1–51. For the central place of religious literature regarding the farm workers movement, see Andrew Jacobs, “Friends and Foes: Religious Publications and the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott (1965–1970),” American Catholic Studies 124, no. 1 (2013): 23–42. For Chavez as an exemplar of Christian nonviolent activism, see Hope and Young, The Struggle for Humanity, 147–82.

[12] Vitale, Love is What Matters, 109.

[13] For a description of Chavez’s office, see Frederick John Dalton, The Moral Vision of César Chavez (New York, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 32. For more on Day’s support of Chavez, see Jim Forest, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day (New York, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 252–59. For links between Chavez, Day, and the Berrigans, see Kaya Oakes, “Meet the Pioneers Who Paved the Way for Catholic Activists Today,” US Catholic, January 31, 2019, https://uscatholic.org/articles/201901/meet-the-pioneers-who-cleared-the-path-for-todays-catholic-activists/. For Berrigan’s view on reaching out to militant groups, see Stringfellow and Townes, Suspect Tenderness, 51.

[14] Leon, The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez, 163; Phil Berrigan to Chavez, April 23, 1972, box 25, folder 19, UFW Office of the President: Cesar Chavez Records, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI.

[15] Chavez, An Organizer’s Tale, 159–61.

[16] Vera Cruz quoted in Craig Scharlin and Lilia V. Villanueva, Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000), 148–49 and 155. For Vera Cruz’s writings on worker segregation, see “Racism in Agriculture,” Catholic Worker 36, no. 1 (1970): 1; and “The Farm Workers and the Church,” Catholic Worker 36, no. 7 (1970): 7–8. For a critical study of Asian migration to the Americas and the historical context of their racialized labor, see Iyko Day, Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

[17] For Chavez’s “megalomania,” see Romero, Brown Church, 138; Dunne, Delano, 58 and 184–85; and Scharlin and Villanueva, Philip Vera Cruz, 157–58.

[18] See Scharlin and Villanueva, Philip Vera Cruz, 173–85.

[19] Daniel Berrigan to Chavez, November 28, 1977, box 97, Daniel and Philip Berrigan Collection, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. According to the letter, this was the first time Berrigan met Chavez in person. The letter is signed from all three Berrigan brothers. The irony is that the Marcos dictatorship would fall by the force of nonviolent activism; see Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003), 97–101.

[20] Arellano, “Woke California Pays Homage This Week to Another American Hero with a Complex Legacy,” Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-03-29/cesar-chavez-problematic-miriam-pawel; and Martinez, De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century (Cambridge, MA: South End, 1998), 96; this wonderful essay is a reflection on the passing of Chavez and his legacy. For a literature review of critical works about Chavez, see Leon, The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez, 67–71. For the controversy surrounding Chavez’s views on immigration, see Leon, “Misusing Cesar Chavez in Immigration Debate,” Religion Dispatches, December 5, 2010, https://religiondispatches.org/misusing-cesar-chavez-in-immigration-debate/. Note that Vera Cruz points out that he disagreed with Chavez over his hardline position on undocumented workers; see Scharlin and Villanueva, Philip Vera Cruz, 187. A study of Chavez’s relationship with undocumented workers and Christian, Latino/a theology is begging to be written.