If you’re thinking about checking out a movie this weekend … well, The Grand Budapest Hotel looks good and I’ve always been a fan of The Muppets, but I hope you’ll consider the new biopic of César Chávez. The film is being released to coincide with César Chávez Day on Monday, marking the 87th birthday of the legendary founder of the United Farmworkers Union.
Every schoolchild in American is familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And with good reason. But less is known about his contemporary, César Chávez. Without question, he was one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century.
Chávez endured the grueling, backbreaking life of a migrant farm worker from childhood. He attended at least 35 schools and never received a formal education beyond 8th grade. But he would become the most learned of men, self-taught in the philosophy of influential thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi and others.
A veteran of a segregated U.S. Navy, he served in the Pacific at the end of World War II and returned home to dedicate his life to La Causa, organizing and leading farm workers in the struggle to win fair wages and overcome deplorable working conditions. Like Dr. King, César Chávez believed non-violent resistance, even in the face of crushing brutality, was the best avenue for empowering people, securing rights and assuring human dignity.
Chávez sacrificed personal comforts for powerful causes. He fasted to bring attention to the exploitation of farm workers, and later in his life to protest the use of pesticides. One of his protégés, longtime labor activist Eliseo Medina, continued in that honorable tradition this past fall when he led several activists in fasting on the Washington Mall to lift up the moral imperative of comprehensive immigration reform. I visited Eliseo in his tent, and then I went back with my kids a few days later, because I wanted them to experience Eliseo’s courage firsthand.
César Chávez’s legacy animates our work every day at the Labor Department. He was inducted into our Hall of Honor in 1998. And two years ago, we named the department’s auditorium after him. That ceremony was emceed by actor Michael Peña, who plays Chávez in the new movie. Michael had a chance that day to see our Chávez exhibit – to touch his rosary, his shirt and other artifacts we have on display from his life.
A heroic and iconic labor leader, a master of the politics of boycott and civil disobedience, a man of towering strength and indescribable courage, one of American history’s leading humanitarians and civil rights giants, César Chávez continues to inspire everyone seeking social change.
As we move closer to fixing our broken immigration system, as we rise to the challenge of income inequality, as we protect the right to join a union, as we create opportunity for all, we draw strength from his vision and moral example.
So, I hope you’ll see the movie — never underestimate the power of arts and entertainment to tell the American story. And on César Chávez Day – and every day – let’s continue to remind ourselves: Sí se puede.
- Cross posted from Work in Progress, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Labor