This painting is of the awesome Cesar Chavez, the Mexican American civil rights leader and activist. My husband Andrew Negrete Madrid is Latino (and part indigenous) and his cousin George Negrete was a Stanford University grad student took time off and worked with Chavez and lived with the leadership of the group in Bakersfield CA, and has many stories. Andrew and I are both 55, and in our youth we both have strong memories of Chavez as a public figure, and the Boycott Grape movement, as it was in our supermarkets our mothers took us too when we were little. Later in life (Andrew grew up in Southern California, I grew up outside of Denver, Colorado), the Coors boycott, which the United Farm Workers and Chavez were heavily involved with, reverberated to my generation, where we didn’t purchase 3.2 Coors out of allegiance and against Coors notorious conservative policies.
All the figures in the show are philosopher activists, and none more so than Chavez. Although he dropped out of school in eight grade to work in the fields full time he was quite well read, and studied philosophy and history, inspired as much by Gandhi as he was Dr. Martin Luther King (and Jesus!). He dedicated his life for the struggle of farm workers in the United States, by organizing protests, and with help of crucial partners, such as fellow organizer Dolores Huerta, negotiating contracts with their employers to improve their working and living conditions, working from early beginnings as a precocious community organizer to ultimately form the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers, making many important victories from the 60’s to his death in the 80’s with perseverance, faith, and genius and incredible leadership.
He led with visionary insight, able to ideate a better world for workers, by creating actions and events, working the media, building thousands of followers of all ethnicities and class levels, getting the support of presidents and at crucial moments, people like Bobby Kennedy to come and fight alongside him for the workers. I read audiobooks of his biography, and learned much in my own humble way of how to lead as Chair of Painting, Drawing, and Printmaking at the University of Southern California, where I am also creating a Narrative Art Program to have students go out and fight the good fight in culture in an even more broad way than all too rarefied world of Fine Art. We were also going through transition in our personal lives—during this painting we had to put my 4-year-old dog Georgia to sleep, as she had been suffering through Stage 4 lymphoma, alongside my blind, toothless poor 15 year old toy poodle, Michelangelo. Not to undermine the giant of Chavez and his accomplishments by personal stories, but as I strived to continue through my existence through incredible mourning and the tenacious politics of academia, which also keep me up at night while trying to transform a whole program, listening to the biography and words of Chavez gave me much needed solace and guidance that I desperately needed at the time.
In addition to his Catholicism and his love for St. Francis of Assis, like Dr. King, Chavez was inspired by the nonviolent civil disobedience espoused by Gandhi. He was able to train his followers to unite in action, and the country to boycott the produce of the egregiously exploitative white owners of the farms and companies that grossly suppressed both Latino and the Pilipino worker communities. He worked with white people in the religious communities, priests that also fought the rights of workers who helped to mentor him and surrounded himself with a multi-cultural cast of lawyers, advisors, family, students, and celebrities and more to get their message to a national front. When at the most crucial times their struggles needed to come to success, Chavez went on long hunger strikes, the third of which put him in such poor health he never quite fully recovered and died two years after.
The 1965 grape boycott grew strong across the country, and finally after a 340-mile Sacramento to Delano in 1966 and a 25 day hunger strike in 1968, it finally ended in 1970, with increased workers’ pay and right to unionize, when the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) was born. When Chavez finally broke his fast (when Kennedy visited), Chavez declared
“I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice,” Chavez declared, in a speech read on his behalf when his first hunger strike ended. “To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us be men.”
With the nonviolent techniques of strikes and boycotts, the UFW continued leading the union efforts, and. Thanks to them, California passed the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, which successfully negotiated for better wages, working condition and rights. In the 1980’s Chavez final hunger strike was to highlight the dangers of pesticides for farm workers and children. He was only 66 when he died, largely due to complications of this strike and his long life of struggle. Bill Clinton awarded him a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the “Yes, we can: campaign of Barack Obama was born, in homage to Chavez, from his slogan “Si, se puede”!
For many and to myself, Chavez was a saint, but even he realized that some of the most wonderful saints were also all to human, which was the thing to struggle against to become saintly
“We work so hard at not being human, so hard at being something other than ourselves. The whole idea is that you have to be what you are and let other people be who they are. We don’t have to change people to change the world. Because there are enough of us; we don’t need a whole majority to do it. We have to find people and help them to act. Without action, you’re kidding yourself.”
Chavez was able find hope where there was none—in his own calm non-erudite way he was able to make connections both small and large to fight what he believed in. Works were paid pinnies and lived in shacks and shanty towns, he helped them organize and found them homes. In his compound in Burlington, he had a post office, a church, a meeting hall, and a place for his workers to sleep. He insisted that no one would be able to get paid more than $7 to get the fees down for everyone and started his own lending corporation for the works and even had a post office. While he had his faults, and his own ego that led sometimes to accusations of autocracy, Chavez was a giant.
In our times, the very things that Chavez fought for and won (and for the battles that he didn’t win) in this Trump era are at grave threat, minority rights for Latinos are the worse they have been since Chavez’s time, and workers exploited, especially during the pandemic, to horrific degrees. For me painting this work, his smile, his benevolence, and his strength helped me greatly. If there is a heaven, Chavez would obviously be like a Serafin angel, closest to god for all the good work he did here on earth for others, he did sacrifice himself, literally, like a saint. The grape vines and flowers behind him in this uncredited image were blurred, and blissed-out in early 70’s filters—it was inspiring to see through them, to be able to negotiate positive and negative space and find the otherworldliness of nature beyond this saint. His shirt, after describing using my grid the design for a neat shirt seemed complete as it was, it was only after that it felt like one of those nets they keep grapes in—that are so solid together that all they need to hold together. I felt after the fact that Chavez and his legacy seem like that, a heralded giant, with holidays and streets named after him, yet all he and his movements have struggled for are still at a threat, gaining so much, but that could be taken away by the suppression from corporate forces, and the racist and class oppression of the far right and conservatives. But this painting gives me hope, and hope that I hope to convey to viewers, that this one man who had the vision and tenacity to fight and win victory for generations of people through faith, strength, and nonviolent vision, empathy, and compassion for the workers of America.