Monday, September 07, 2009

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez, champion of the poor, saw his family’s home and small farm seized by creditors when he was only 10. He spent his youth as a migrant worker, traveling with his family wherever there were crops to harvest. They shared what little they had with those who had less.

Work in the fields meant long hours of backbreaking tasks and exposure to dangerous pesticides, for half the wages other workers in the United States could expect. Workers had no rights and lived at the mercy of employers. This experience of helplessness and poverty engendered in Cesar a profound thirst for justice. From 1952 until his death, he worked ceaselessly to improve the lot of his people.

After ten years of working in voter registration drives and in challenging police and immigration abuse, he turned his attention to the struggle for justice for migrant workers. Using non-violent tactics and sustained by the deep spirituality of his Catholic Mexican roots, he led the United Farm Workers through seemingly impossible situations. Agribusiness sometimes responded with violence. Several union members were killed. Even the Teamsters tried to sabotage what gains his union made. In spite of all odds, he made the plight of migrants known to the rest of the nation, giving a voice to those who had been forgotten.

Always a poor man, Cesar sometimes had to ask for food for his wife and children from the very workers he was trying to organize. He died on April 23, away from home on union business, after an eight-day water-only fast. An estimated 35 thousand people formed his three-mile-long funeral procession. He was buried as a poor man in a simple pine box. He remains in our midst, however, as a patron of all the poor, but especially of immigrant minorities who suffer solely because they will not watch their families starve. In this icon he carries the Constitution of the United States, for whose guarantees he fought, on behalf of all the oppressed.

-Br Robert Lentz, OFM

Selected verses from Come Labor On, aka the Protestant Work Ethic Song.
Midi file and text from the Oremus Hymnal.

Come, labor on.
The enemy is watching night and day,
to sow the tares, to snatch the seed away;
while we in sleep our duty have forgot,
he slumbered not.

Come, labor on.
The toil is pleasant, the reward is sure,
blessed are those who to the end endure;
how full their joy, how deep their rest shall be,
O Lord, with thee.

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