Two for all

Rediscovering the qualities that made heroes of Cesar Chavez and Oscar Romero

By Randy Jurado Ertll 03/31/2014

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When I was a student at Occidental College, I remember a Latina student asking if we were going to Cesar Chavez’s funeral. Raised in El Salvador, I innocently asked, “Who is Cesar Chavez?” Her jaw dropped. She simply could not believe that I did not know about Chavez.

After Chavez’s passing on April 23, 1993, I kept hearing his name. Then I started learning about the United Farm Workers (UFW). Eventually, I joined MEChA/ALAS Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan/Assocation of Latin American Students, the only Latino student club at Oxy. Then, we eventually decided to form the Central American Student Association (CASA), a bold but necessary move. Unknowingly, we were following Chavez’s example of organizing and assuming leadership.

Of course, we were not in the agricultural fields; we were engaged in an urban struggle. My struggle as a child was growing on the mean streets of South Central. Just surviving going to school there was quite an achievement.

Occidental College was and is a small enclave of intellectuals. I began reading about the Chicano struggle and about Chavez. But I noticed that no discussions about Central American politics and history were taking place.

Central Americans did not have a Cesar Chavez. The closest person we had to Chavez was Archbishop Oscar Romero. It is interesting that both of these iconic heroes are celebrated within the same week in March. Chavez was born on March 31, 1927. Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980. They had something much more in common: an unbreakable belief in Catholic spirituality and a true commitment to social justice.

Today, both men have been sanctified and transformed into iconic figures. Yet, in their time they were quite controversial. 

Chavez was a renegade, a rabble rouser and a rebel to certain power structures. Yet, he was an American who had served in the Navy and was a staunch supporter of United States policies.

Both Chavez and Romero eventually chose not to follow certain established rules or regulations, or political policies or inhumane laws set by bureaucrats and politicians.
They followed the hearts of the people. They took the time to meet with and talk to the poor. They did not ignore their pain or pleas. They chose to champion their needs and became spokespeople for the underprivileged. They were willing to fight for the invisible people in our society. They both had an extraordinary connection and commitment to farm workers.

It was the campesinos (farm workers) that revolutionized Romero. He met with them often and personally witnessed their pain and suffering. He decided to take on their fight for respect and equality. He chose to give his life for the Salvadoran people.

Chavez made a similar choice. He chose to give his life to the farm worker movement. Of course, he had flaws, just like Romero had flaws. They were not perfect and never proclaimed to be saints.

It is quite ironic that the Catholic Church turned its back on Romero when he became politically involved by denouncing human rights violations in El Salvador. Pope Francis will most likely designate him a saint, a process stated by Pope John Paul II.  Would Romero have wanted or accepted such a thing? Probably not. He was a humble man. Nonetheless, he has now been embraced by political parties that continually use his image at rallies and invoke his memory.

Today, Chavez is also embraced by many political circles. When both men were alive, they made many uncomfortable. But both men organized people, mobilized politically and sacrificed their health by standing up to injustices. They did not sell out or become allies of the oppressors. 

The powers that be were not able to buy off Chavez or Romero. They were not willing to sell their principles. They were men of integrity and principles. They shunned material possessions and wealth. 

Chavez was not fully supportive of undocumented immigrants. He was not necessarily enamored of undocumented immigrants from Central America who allegedly had communist leadings or those who he perceived as a threat to the legal farm workers. He may have become more sensitive toward all immigrants after passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986.

What is true is that no one owns the legacies of Oscar Romero or Cesar Chavez. They were bigger than any political party or special interest. Both men were free spirits and courageous rebels by nature who gave their lives unconditionally to help others. 

Randy Jurado Ertll, author of the book “The Life of an Activist: In the Frontlines 24/7.” Visit him at HYPERLINK "http://www.randyjuradoertll.com/"randyjuradoertll.com.

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