The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders

The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders

by Luis D. Leon

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283695
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/14/2014
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Luis D. León is Associate Professor in the department of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and author of La Llorona's Children: Religion, Life, and Death in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.

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The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez

Crossing Religious Borders

By Luis D. León


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-28369-5



Think Different

For now we see through a glass, darkly ... St. Paul, 1 Cornithians 13:12

There is no true version of a life, after all. There are only stories told about and around a life.

Ruth Behar, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story

We can appeal to broad sectors because of these different interpretations. Cesar Chavez

In 1998 a black-and-white photo of a beleaguered Cesar Chavez graced billboards, magazines, and television screens across the United States as part of Apple Corporation's promotional campaign asking consumers to "think different." His countenance is somber. On his right shoulder he carries a shovel, a rake, and a hoe. The splintered handles of his tools and his demeanor evoke a man carrying a rugged cross. His eyes avoid the camera, as he stares down at the earth. Others memorialized in the campaign included John Lennon, Gandhi, and Martha Graham. Several variations of a poetic text were released as part of the promotion. The following is the "full version":

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Of the roughly twenty-four persons celebrated in the campaign, Chavez is the only Mexican American (though the billboards also extolled Desi Arnaz, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Baez).

Cesar Chavez is without doubt the most widely remembered Chicano and perhaps U.S. Latino across the globe. Remembering him can pay dividends: they are the yield of his cultural capital. As a result, groups and individuals stake claims to Chavez's public remembrance, which also has cash value; it has been used to market everything from Indian casinos to the megacorporation Apple.

Because Chavez is always remembered in context, the memory produced is always incomplete, entailing some forgetting or amnesia. In 2001 his cartoon ghost materialized virtually in The Simpsons, on the Fox Network—an episode viewed by an audience of over ten million —to console a hunger-striking Homer Simpson, who mistakes him for Cesar Romero (1907–1994). There is much disorder in the leader's public remembrance. He is conscripted by various interests and appropriated uncritically in discourses that are often at odds with one another. His legacy—his corporeal record and spiritual accounting—provide the raw material from which to build powerful sacred narratives for mass consumption: the memory of Cesar Chavez is a very influential myth. This chapter maps, deconstructs, and theoretically reconstructs that mythology.

First, I look to the account of his life as he told it. I then delineate and probe secondary accounts of the leader that form a canon. My thesis here is that the received and canonized story of Chavez is retold strategically, shaped and informed by a will to power. The incongruence in his iterated memory alone evinces a combination of mythos and logos, reason and psychology, especially when considered against the way he self-represented, that is, constructed his own mythology. Overall, his story emerges as a palimpsest, wherein the meaning is eked out from the layers of tellings. The question becomes, then, where to focus when telling the myth, or where to place the accent.


Chavez never used accents when spelling out his name. Yet most of those writing about him, especially those writing posthumous accounts, set accents over the letters e in César, and a in Chávez, literally correcting the record he left of his own name so that it conforms to proper Spanish spelling rules. By contrast, I am careful to note that he did not place the accents himself; I acknowledge his right to misspell his name consistently in a lifetime of signing it. I try to understand his perspective. Because my interest is more phenomenological than historical, I intend to let the phenomenon—in this case Chavez's story—emerge on its own terms. My phenomenology is also careful to distinguish between my words and his. Instead of attempting to correct the historical record, my hermeneutic probes the meaning of the incongruity.

Interpreting Chavez through his self-fashioning is usefully accomplished by identifying the tropes of the classical hero, written about by Joseph Campbell in his timeless book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This frame for reading, when purged of any metaphysical excess and adjusted to fit the profane and ordinary heroic narrative, enables a clearer fathoming of Chavez's story as a universal one, involving rites of passage: separation, trial, and return The plot of the leader's life lends itself well to the romance, the song of the classical hero, particularly the tragic hero, when read in tandem with Erik Erikson's psychosocial analysis of early psychic formation, distinct personality traits resulting in traumatic life-altering events—those Erikson found, for example, in the tale of Gandhi. Chavez is ultimately a tragic hero in the sense that although he slayed the dragon, he succumbed to his own demons, his human flaws. Nonetheless, the myth he left remains empowering for millions of Latinos and others, who accent it in several different ways.


The song of Cesar Chavez as he sang it began with his family's modest but idyllic life on its simple ranch in Arizona, connected to the sandy earth, beneath the unblocked sky. When he was ten years old, racism, combined with misfortune, led to the family's expulsion from place—a physical, spiritual, and psychic displacement. During his formative years he enjoyed the warm and secure embrace of his family. But the ejection from home, the shattering of clan, prompted an emotional reaction extreme enough to shape the traits of a personality that would affect and redirect history.

Chavez tied his ethos and mission to terra firma: "I bitterly missed the ranch. Maybe that is when the rebellion started. Some had been born into the migrant stream. But we had been on the land, and I knew a different way of life. We were poor, but we had liberty. The migrant is poor, and he has no freedom." If his origin story betrays an appreciation of real estate, drawing connections between property, liberty, and freedom, it also reveals a spiritual valuation of earth. He sometimes referred to farm workers as "people of the land" because they lived with their hands and feet planted in the soil. According to his own rendition the expulsion from paradise triggered his metanoia; he vowed at that moment to return and to repossess the ranch. Hence, land and its multiple sacred and profane meanings shaped Chavez's priorities from his preadolescence.

The multiple inscriptions of Chavez narrating his beginnings are key to his mythology. The first major record of the leader's life and work was Peter Matthiessen's Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution, first published in 1969. Matthiessen was a reporter working for the New Yorker who traveled to Delano to meet the union's founder during the summer of 1968. From those meetings he produced a pair of articles, published in the June 21 and 28, 1969, issues of the New Yorker. Matthiessen focused more on the formative years of La Causa than on Chavez's early development. He attempted to capture the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s, with La Causa's leader as its epitome. According to one of the book's contemporaneous reviewers, he offered "a view of a battlefield where the fight is not only for the agricultural workers but for the redemption of the [whole] country."

The gospel account of Chavez according to Matthiessen records the ejection as follows: "With the loss of their land in 1937, the Chavez family began the long grim period that Manuel [Chavez's cousin] calls 'our migrating years.' Up and down the byways of California, with the armies of the dispossessed, they followed the crops. Like all the rest, the Chavezes were true paupers; their struggle was for shelter, clothing, food."

The journalist Jacques Levy began interviewing the leader in 1969 and continued until Chavez's death. Levy took a leave of absence from the Santa Rosa, California, Press Democrat to start researching a biography of Chavez and later devoted himself full-time to the project. After publishing his book, entitled Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa, in 1974, Levy continued to interview the labor leader as well as family members and associates. Levy's text is written in the Latin American style of the testimonio—an autobiography narrated by an activist and recorded by a scribe who also participates in the act of creating the narrative. Mario T. García explains: "Unlike traditional autobiography, in which there is one sole author, in testimonios.... we find 'collaborative autobiography.'"

Matthiessen's and Levy's narratives are tantamount to gospel accounts of Chavez's life, insofar as they announce the "good news" that liberation is afoot: they are also evangelistic, meant to recruit followers to La Causa. Nearly all the writing on Chavez from 1965 to 1970, the years of the Great Grape Strike, can be classified as proselytizing literature, meant to convert readers to the cause. For the most part, they follow the Matthiessen-Levy line in recounting details of Chavez's early life and the founding of the UFW. They tend to vary in some key places, however, especially in descriptions of Chavez's suffering while growing up on the ranch in Yuma. After the family's ejection from the farm, suffering took center stage in the stories, as the itinerant and starving Chavez family endured unfathomable miseries and deprivations, sleeping in their car and vulnerable to every exploitation devised by the growers. One chronicler opened his account as follows:

Stooped over in the intense sun along the rows of crops, the migrants worked from early morning till nearly dark.... they harvested—men and women alongside young boys and girls, day after day, their bodies contorted in painful routine.

At night, they returned to the housing camps—dirty, cramped, rundown shacks, converted chicken coops, and storage sheds, none with running water or electricity, almost all of them infested with mosquitoes. Dozens of families shared a single outhouse. Water came from nearby irrigation ditches. They never had enough food. Children went to school only when they were not needed in the fields.

Richard Chavez, Cesar's younger brother, however, told a slightly different story of relatively less discomfort and instability when I interviewed him.

Chavez's self-representation deviates from the notion of simple and ordinary beginnings. As one writer noted: "Life had started differently for Chavez; he and his family lived on their own small farm, not in wealth, surely, but in an independent manner only dreamed of by most farm workers. The Chavez family had a few horses, some cows, and raised grain, alfalfa, vegetables, and watermelons on their eighty acres in the Gila River Valley."

The founder tells how he was nurtured by his extraordinary paternal grandparents, who were integrated into his immediate household. His father's mother, Dorotea, or Mama Tella, was raised in a Mexican convent, where she learned Latin. His grandfather, Cesario Chavez, or Papa Chayo, was a product of the Mexican revolutionary spirit, manifesting the principles of tierra y libertad, land and liberty. Cesar's mother, Juana Estrada, was a woman of great faith. Cesar described her as a full-blooded Yaqui Indian. Marc Grossman, the official Chavez family spokesman, insists that she was a Tarahumara Indian. But Richard Chavez says that she was not Indian at all.

Whether Juana Estrada Chavez was a Yaqui is less important for this project than the meaning Cesar hoped to create in disclosing that identity to foreground his own. This indigenous identification places the founder in a proud revolutionary tradition that would have appealed to his Indian followers. Take, for example, the Native American scholar Jace Weaver's response to the claim that Chavez was Yaqui: "Chavez himself was an Indian.... The Yoeme [Yaqui] differentiated themselves from Mexicans, refused to accept an inferior status, and fought fiercely to defend their sovereignty. Their resistance brought them into conflict first with the Spanish and then with the Mexican government. The dictator Porfirio Díaz brutally persecuted the Yoeme and sought to relocate them from the Sonora. Many fled to Arizona, Chavez's mother's family probably among them."

Chavez further claimed that his mother was a curandera, a spiritual healer or medicine woman, skilled in the complicated postcolonial drama of faith healing, combining herbal remedies and ancient Mesoamerican ritual techniques with Catholic symbolism and prayer: "My mother had a reputation in the valley for her skill in healing, a skill she put to constant use, for she couldn't bear to see anyone in pain, and there were no doctors in the valley. She was especially knowledgeable in the use of herbs, choosing some to cool a fever, others to cure colic, and mixing brews for specific illnesses. Her faith in her skill was as strong as her belief in the saints and the Virgin of Guadalupe." Her go-to remedy was the herb manzanilla, or chamomile, which also became Cesar's nickname. Cesar came to believe that he too possessed healing powers, and he sometimes functioned as a spiritual healer himself.

Richard Chavez disputes not only that his mother was an Indian but also that she was a curandera. Nevertheless, Cesar repeated the claim in his eulogy for his mother: "Our mother was a folk healer. Besides delivering babies and curing common colds and headaches, she cured children of sustos [fright], empacho [indigestion], mollera [(problems with) the crown of an infant's head], pujon [constipation] y ojo [the evil eye]. Her favorites herbs were yerba buena [peppermint], yoposte [epazote?], yerba del pasmo [Baccharis pteronioides], sa[ú]co [elderflower]—and she really believed in manzanilla." As he testifies, his mother was summoned by people throughout the valley for her healing services.

Juana Chavez's faith and compassion often eclipsed her economic reasoning, for she would exhaust the family's means of subsistence in helping others: her extravagant sacrifices meant that her own family lacked basic necessities. "You always have to help the needy," she reasoned, "and God will help you." Cesar's description of his mother's faith resonates with what the psychosocial biographer Erickson writes of the faith of Gandhi's mother: "She was an utterly undogmatic religious person of a kind who wished to pursue only what made her feel right and clean. Indeed, she imbued her little son with a tolerance for any religion as long as it cultivated a deep sense of communion with the unseen and silent." Chavez gave a similar account of his mother, whom he had at his side during his three public fasts.

Beginning with his relationship to his mother, Cesar appears to have plotted his autobiography as an oedipal family romance in the Gandhian style. In the words of Gandhi, "Whenever she wanted me for anything, I ran to her." But Cesar also channeled his mother when he practiced spiritual healing. That Richard Chavez has disputed his mother's curanderismo suggests that he followed an impulse to sanitize the late labor leader for popular consumption; that Cesar described his mother as a curandera, giving elaborate details about what appears to be her passionate devotion to her work, establishes his mystical heritage. He absorbed his mother's techniques and would later deploy them when caring for the farm workers. In addition to his knowledge of botanicals, he read books on acupuncture and taught himself chakra therapy. Chavez practiced healing with his hands, regularly treating devotees for illnesses, especially those involving headaches and chronic physical pain. Richard Chavez has not contested this account but has downplayed its import by explaining that both he and Cesar once took a course on healing energy. Yet according to an audio recording in an exhibit at the Cesar E. Chavez Center at La Paz, a "granddaughter" claims that the leader believed he could talk to spiders and snakes—communication with animals constituting one characteristic of the mystical curandera or curandero.


Excerpted from The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez by Luis D. León. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

(Re)Introduction. Enfleshment: Cesar’s Body
1. Mythology: Think Different
2. Prophecy: In the Path of Gandhi and Martin Luther King
3. Religion: A Revolutionary Spirit
Conclusion. The Lost Gospel: “God Help Us to Be Men!”


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