We Americans seem to have the idea that our great leaders have descended from heaven to be among us and guide us. It’s a comforting thought, and one that relives us of personal responsibility. And the readymade leader was not the case with Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez, whose birthday we commemorate on March 31.
The problem with this narrative is that it absolves us of our duty as citizens to help mold and encourage the current and future leaders of our society. None of our great leaders suddenly appeared on the scene. They emerged because their families, friends, teachers, neighbors – and even foes – helped make them who they became.
Cesar Chavez is a good example. After returning from the Navy, he would spend Saturdays with his friends, drinking beer and tinkering with their cars – nothing unusual. But every Saturday, a veteran community organizer named Fred Ross, who recognized César’s potential, would drop by and say “César, you can do better.” One Saturday, César said “like what?” and the rest is history.
Ross’ invitations, of course, did not happen in a vacuum. It played off the background of César’s parents and religious upbringing. His friends, notably Dolores Huerta, later helped push him along.
César, who was born in 1927 and died in 1993, became one of the nation’s preeminent farm labor organizers and Mexican American leaders. He dedicated his life to improving the wages and working conditions of one of the country’s poorest and most exploited groups of workers, a large share of whom were in Texas.
Not only did César lead the historic non-violent movement for farm worker rights, but he also motivated thousands of others to commit themselves to social, economic, and environmental justice. And he helped inspire Hispanic community leaders to throw off the shackles of discrimination.
César led the first successful farm workers union in U.S. history and won the first industry-wide labor contracts in American agriculture. The United Farm Workers helped achieve dignity, respect, fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits, and humane working conditions for hundreds of thousands of farm laborers.
César’s influence on Texans extended far beyond the thousands of Texas farm laborers who worked as migrants in California. His efforts to open the doors of colleges and universities to the Hispanic community reached deep into Texas, and, in turn, opened doors to economic and political opportunity.
People felt the justice of his cause. More than 50,000 people from all walks of life marched in his funeral procession under the hot Delano, California sun.
César’s birthday should not be just a day on which we honor his life, but a day on which we tell his narrative and re-commit ourselves to helping those around us become leaders in the struggle to make our community and our country a better place for our children and grandchildren. Those to whom we reach out may be our kids, friends, the young person next door, students, or people we know through our work.
Whether that person becomes a future leader may depend on extending our hand to him or her, encouraging them, or perhaps just a frank person-to-person conversation. Our history will be defined by our own willingness to help shape the current generation and the one to come.
Harrington, the director of Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation, worked with César Chávez in Texas for 18 years.