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May 2021

Hero Who?

Each U.S. President personally chooses what artwork will adorn the Oval Office during his tenure. Not surprising, likenesses in paint or bronze, of historical luminaries ranging from Washington to Lincoln, FDR, to Winston Churchill, J.F.K., Martin Luther King, and one cowboy have graced walls or pedestals in this most prestigious of offices.  President Trump prominently displayed a bronze of a man he admired, Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt. He didn’t know the “Bronco Buster” depicted was not the late President, but western artist, Frederick Remington’s iconic representation of an ordinary working cowboy. But then again, such were at the heart of “Making America great,” before the “Again.” Another is reflected in President Biden’s personal choice.

In news photos of President Biden signing documents at his desk, if you looked past him to the table behind him, centered in a place of honor between the American and Presidential flags and framed picture of his wife Jill and family, you’d note a single bronze bust of a man. His head is tilted slightly to the side and downward, a humble man, yet noble. The man depicted has known hardship and sadness, yet not been broken. You sense an inner strength and steadfastness, like the very metal of which he is cast. You can almost hear his “Si se suede.” “You can do it… yes, it’s possible.”

This man of peace with the heart of a lion, was born in Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927, of dirt-poor itinerant Mexican farm laborers who worked the lettuce fields and vineyards of California. They labored from dawn-to-dusk, enduring, somehow surviving, blazing sun, dust, pesticides, harsh, often cruel overseers, prevalent prejudice, deplorable shack housing, no insurance, little to no medical, all for garnered wages that fell far below minimal. Though they fed the nation, they themselves often went hungry.  You would think from such roots only something dark or broken could sprout, not a man who before he died on April 23, 1993 in San Luis, Arizona, would have received the Jefferson Award for outstanding public service (1973), then honored in 1992 with the Pacem in Terris Award (A Catholic Peace Award as prestigious as a Nobel), and be a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest Civilian honor awarded in our country). The citation accompanying the award from President Clinton noted how this farm worker, from childhood “possessed a deep personal understanding of the plight of migrant workers, and labored all his years to lift their lives.” One would wonder how all these accolades were possible for a poor, slightly educated man, a field laborer who never earned more than $5000 a year for his labors. We are inundated with men with political or fiscal clout. But occasionally, rarely, beautifully, we get one with moral clout.

Such a man was Caesar Chavez.

We have all heard the saying, “actions speak louder than words.” But the loudest is when actions and words are one and the same, when the talk is entirely walked.  We saw that in Mahatma Gandhi. We saw it again in Martin Luther King. It is not surprising that both these men were heroes and models for Cesar. We get a true measure of this humble giant, who with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later called the United Farm Workers of America), from his own words, for he walked them. Here are a few:

“God gave us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.”

“What I do shows people what kind of man I am.”

“To be a man is to suffer for others.”

“You must become a servant of the people. When you do, you can demand their commitment in return.”

“You are never so strong that you don’t need help.”

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him. The people who give you their food give you their heart.”

“Those who are willing to sacrifice and to be of service to others have very little difficulty with people. They know what they are all about. People can’t help but want to be near them. They help them. They work with them. That’s what love is all about. It starts with your heart, and it radiates out.”

“Never, never, is it possible to reach someone if you become angry or bitter. Only love and gentleness can do it.”

“Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.”

“We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live.”

“My (our) fight is never about lettuce or grapes. It is always about people.”

“We cannot feel achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our communities. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sake and for our own.”

“We need to help students and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens this community and this nation.”

“Change must come, but through non-violence. Non-violence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak. Non-violence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.”

“There is no such thing as defeat in non-violence.

“History will judge societies and governments and their institutions, not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and powerful, but how affectively they respond to the needs of the poor and helpless.”

“Our language is the reflection of ourselves. It is an exact reflection of the character and growth of the speaker.”

…………………

Twenty eight years after his passing, the words of this humble yet mighty Arizonan challenge us to reassess, to look closely of the language of today, of “walls,” and “me-first,” the “us against them” within our own society, the embrace of violence and anarchy by so many Americans of every color. Language leads to walk. I think we need a Cesar Chavez looking over our shoulder. Regardless of what you think of President Biden, in that regard he chose wisely.


Anthony de la Torre
Sun City Grand resident

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