Millions Reaped What Cesar Chavez Sowed

Article excerpt

DELANO, Calif. - They came by car, pickup truck, van and school bus, tens of thousands of people pouring into the 87-degree heat of the San Joaquin Valley to pay last respects to United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez.

Their license plates said California, Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona - people like elderly UFW members Guadalupe Benito Arvizos, who only a few days earlier in Yuma had taken Chavez for a haircut.

The mourners were arriving for the funeral of an icon to Mexican-Americans, Mexicans and the broader Latino communities of the United States who died April 23 of an apparent heart attack.

They had driven hundreds of miles past fields where they and their families before them had picked grapes, lettuce, tomatoes, oranges - farm workers who knew the soil of the Kern County flatlands around Delano and their equivalent nationwide.

Long lines of dusty vehicles waited to park here at Forty Acres, the regional UFW center where the farm workers movement was born. Here was Chavez's body in the plain pine box fashioned by his brother, Richard.

Attending were figures in politics, entertainment and activism: Ethel Kennedy and Joe Kennedy, Jerry Brown, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, apparently representing President Clinton. Actors Ricardo Montalban and Martin Sheen were there, as well as activists such as Msgr. George Higgins, the labor priest, and religious women such as Notre Dame de Namur Sister Ann Kendrick.

The rosary began at 7 p.m. April 28 and lasted all night, interspersed with tributes such as Aztec dancing. People slept in their cars and on the ground. There was no room in the few inns, such as the Sundance Motel, where people slept six and eight to a room, two and three to a bed.

The next morning, the vast crowds gathered for the symbolic two-hour march to the funeral Mass at Forty Acres, where Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony was celebrant.

The family - Chavez's wife, Helen, their eight children and their spouses, and numerous grandchildren - had already had private moments at the coffin. As Chavez's son Paul told NCR?, "Now is the time to share him with everyone else."

Thousands of people with only a handful of local and state police to help with the traffic - this was the funeral of a nonviolent Christian.

Desert origins

His Christian life began, as it ended, in a small desert town. He was born March 31, 1927, and baptized in the Immaculate Conception Church of Yuma. It was a modest area where small farmers once battled dust and drought but where agribusiness now rules. That church was destroyed by fire in 1960.

Death came during the early hours of Friday, April 23, in San Luis, barely 30 miles from Immaculate Conception Church. But in the 66 years between, Chavez had made history.

A few men and women have engraved their names in the annals of change through nonviolence, but none have experienced the grinding childhood poverty that Chavez did after the Depression-struck family farm on the Gila River was foreclosed in 1937.

Chavez was 10. His parents and the five children took to the picking fields as migrant workers.

Chavez's faith sustained him, but it is likely that it was both knowing and witnessing poverty and the sheer drudgery and helplessness of the migrant life that drove him.

He never lost the outreach that he had learned from his mother, who, despite the family's poverty, told her children to invite any hungry people in the area home to share what rice, beans and tortillas the family had.

He left school to work. He would say later that he attended 65 elementary schools but never graduated from high school: Always moving on with the season, his extended family fought to survive - fought hunger, fatigue and illness and fought the excruciating pain that can come from hours of backbreaking tasks.

Migrant field work still means a short life, poor, unhealthy life. …