Saturday, June 20, 2009

Searching for Cesar Chavez in Portland, Oregon

By Sean Cruz

I am searching for Cesar Chavez in Portland, Oregon.

Cesar Chavez was a Mexican American farm worker, son and grandson of Mexican farm workers, and a Chicano, like myself.

Cesar Chavez, the spirit of Cesar Chavez, ought to be easy to find…if you know what you are looking for…I found my own Chicano identity, you see, through Cesar Chavez, through the Chicano Movement in California in the 1960’s.

The Cesar Chavez they are talking about renaming a street for in Portland must be a different person than the one I know.

In this long Portland discussion, Cesar Chavez has been described as a "Latino", as a "Hispanic", as a "not Hispanic, but an American", as an "American" and as a "Latino American", but never as a Mexican American or a Chicano, not even by the people who claim to own the Chavez-honoring franchise.

It was his Mexican face that got him arrested for refusing to sit in the theater balcony, in the Mexican section, and nothing else.

Cesar Chavez’s struggle and his campaigns were defined by his life experience as a brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking, Mexican-American migrant farmworker, a person who far too many Americans would categorize even today as a wetback, and they do….

We’ve all seen and heard the bigoted comments that this street-renaming fiasco has generated.

The only persons that those bigoted comments are directed towards are Mexican people, Mexican-American people, like Cesar Chavez, like me.

Portland State University has a Department of Chicano and Latino Studies, where “Emphasis is on the experience of the Chicano and other Latinos as residents and citizens in the United States…Graduates with a certificate in Chicano/Latino studies will have…gained important insight into a very different culture within U.S. borders.”

This fact explains in part why the Portland Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has been completely silent on the street-renaming issue over the entire past two years. There are no Chicanos over there, and no farmworkers either.

In two years of kicking the street-renaming can-of-worms through town, what insights have been gained?

Most Portlanders in this street-renaming fiasco, completely ignorant of the fact that Hispanic and Latino cultures are not all the same, use these terms interchangeably to describe significantly different cultures, as if they are synonyms. There is no honor in that.

Chicanos are the warrior class. Not everyone likes to hear that. Cesar Chavez was a Chicano.

Farm labor in the USA is not a “Latino” experience, or a “Hispanic” experience and not necessarily an “immigrant” experience.

Historically and to the present day, farm labor is by a wide margin a Mexican experience, a Mexican-American experience, and in California, where Cesar Chavez family and my family worked the fields, a Chicano experience, and it is 100% an experience of deep, abject poverty and injustice, conditions that continue to exist today.

There is no honor in being told “you people all look alike.”

Our experience is unique to us, and Cesar Chavez brought that experience out of the shadows, brought us out of the shadows, Mexican people, Mexican Americans, Chicanos.

In Portland, Oregon’s mostly-Mexican farmworkers remain in the shadows, and the City Council and the Boulevard Renaming Committee have done nothing to bring about change where it matters.

Oregon’s mostly-Mexican farmworkers remain the state’s only population that is prohibited by law from the right to overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week.

Oregon’s mostly-Mexican farmworkers won the right to meal and rest breaks during the workday only five years ago, the only population in the state denied that fundamental right.

When the City Council meets on Tuesday, there may be farmworkers in the audience. What will they have gained at the end of the day? The right to overtime pay? Protection for the sexual harassment that these mostly-Mexican women farmworkers suffer in the fields and orchards? Any meaningful change to their living and working conditions?

The City of Portland offers them a stretch of asphalt instead, a victory only for the handful of City Hall insiders who are keeping their heads down until after the Council makes its decision.

Important note: The Boulevard Renaming Committee recently took down all of the photos from its website that might identify who its members are, all those City Hall insiders failing in the courage department, too.

Renaming a street against the will of the people who live there while failing to address the living and working conditions of farmworkers with anything more than rhetoric conveys no honor to Cesar Chavez.

Renaming a street without a single Mexican business or architectural feature, and with no Mexican food along its entire length is no way to honor Cesar Chavez.

It's not much better than the Boulevard Committee's boneheaded choice of Interstate Avenue for "honoring" Cesar Chavez, where the only sources of Mexican food was Taco Bell and Taco Time, two corporate franchises.

Until recently, Taco Bell was the subject of a lengthy, bitter boycott because of it's opposition to a 1-cent pay increase for farmworkers. That information never made it into the Portland "honoring" discussion.

The Chavez Boulevard Committee, which mostly consists of City Hall insiders and people without a drop of Mexican blood flowing in their veins, demanded that Interstate Avenue be renamed, which would have been fine for Taco Bell, but an insult to Mexican people.

The Boulevard Committee made the claim that failing to rename a Portland street would be an insult to Latinos and Hispanics, and the City Council bought it

Most people are simply indifferent to the living and working conditions of farmworkers.

Cesar Chavez recognized that in order to overcome that indifference, that American indifference, he had to educate the public.

So far, I’m not seeing much in Portland that gives a clue to Cesar Chavez, but I’m going to keep searching….