Cesar Chavez: Change Needs More than “Yes We Can”

Artwork by Otto Sturcke

Cesar Chavez Knew Change Requires More than Chanting “Yes We Can”

As Cesar Chavez is honored this week, his legacy offers a powerful reminder that achieving real change is difficult, and involves more than chanting “Yes We Can.” Two years after the 2008 election appeared to usher in a new progressive era, many activists are dispirited. Yet Chavez and those who got their start as UFW activists knew well how quickly politics could turn. Chavez began organizing farmworkers in 1962, as John Kennedy’s presidency stirred hope throughout the nation. But Kennedy was killed in 1963, Ronald Reagan was elected California’s Governor in 1966, and Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968; both Reagan and Nixon regularly faced cameras eating non-union grapes. In 1968, the UFW helped bring Robert Kennedy’s victory in the 1968 California Democratic primary.

Many believed the close farmworker ally would be our next President, until he was assassinated on primary night as the UFW’s Dolores Huerta stood by his side. Yet Chavez and UFW activists did not allow even such powerful, emotional setbacks to break their spirit. Chavez and the UFW did not just chant “Yes We Can! (“Si Se Puede!”), they practiced it – exercising an unyielding commitment to social justice that provides a roadmap for activists today.

Having written a book, Beyond the Fields, on the ongoing legacy of Cesar Chavez and the UFW, I believe that today’s activists can learn much from the farmworkers movement. Last year, I urged readers to use Cesar Chavez Day to “rediscover Cesar Chavez,” focusing on how the UFW demonstrated the potential success of national grassroots campaigns, reinvented grassroots electoral outreach, and offered the greatest activist “incubator” of our times.

But with the prospects for progressive change diminishing in the past year, Chavez and the UFW provide particularly critical guidance in recognizing the often great difficulty of winning real change. It clearly appears that while candidate Obama insisted that change would not be easy, both he and many of his supporters assumed the 2008 elections would smooth the path to win victories that have never easily been won.

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