Longer listens: Immigration protests and the legacy of Cesar Chavez


Salon Staff
March 28, 2006 11:44PM (UTC)

When more than half a million men and women marched on downtown Los Angeles last Saturday to protest new immigration legislation that calls for a security wall along the southern U.S. border and for illegal immigrants to be made felons, the chant of "Si se puede!" (Yes we can!) resounded (0:53, MP3) in the streets. (In these raw audio clips from the L.A. Independent Media Center you can also here chants of "Aqui estamos y no nos vamos," (1:01, MP3) "Unete pueblo" (0:48, MP3) and cars horns blowing (0:46, MP3) during the protest.) "Si se puede!" was the rallying cry of migrant labor organizer Cesar Chavez, who would have turned 79 this week. There can be little doubt that Chavez would have been among the demonstrators, who, by all accounts, kept to his commitment to nonviolence. In a smaller gathering the next day, several thousand farmworkers (many of whom were working during the Saturday protest) also marched in downtown Los Angeles to celebrate Chavez's life and work and to join in the protest against Wisconsin Rep. Sensenbrenner's proposed legislation.

In 1971, Chavez sat down with Studs Terkel in Chicago to discuss his childhood as a migrant worker. The interview, which is available at StudsTerkel.org, formed part of Terkel's "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression." In Part 1 (14:52, Real Audio), Chavez talks about moving to Yuma, Ariz., after his father was thrown off of his farm and then, after being forced off of that land, climbing into an old Chevy with his four siblings to go to California and pick apricots, walnuts, pears, prunes and, in the winter, peas, broccoli and carrots. "Although we had been poor," he says of the shift to a migratory life, "we knew every night that there was a bed there ... and it was a sort of settled life. We had chickens and hogs and eggs ... but that all of a sudden changed, and, well, when you're small you can't figure these things out except that you know something is not right and you don't like it."

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In Part 2 (16:07, Real Audio), Chavez recalls the hurt of seeing a young waitress refuse to serve his father coffee at one of many diners that served "white trade only": "If she had been able to just stop and really understand how much damage she had done," says Chavez, "she would have never done it." He also tells of attending 37 different schools from the first to eighth grade and the teachers who saw such migrant students merely as an opportunity for a tax rebate. "I remember those things," he says. "Some people put this out of their minds ... I don't. I don't want to forget them ... I want them to be there because this is what happened. This is the truth, you know, history."

-- Ira Boudway


Salon Staff

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