Olympia Snowe’s retirement after 17 years in the U.S. Senate is a harbinger of profound negative changes in our politics. Yet a hopeful light awaits Maine and America. It will come from a man who some will see as an unlikely source: civil rights icon Cesar Chavez.

I was born in East Los Angeles, a child of the Civil Rights Movement. Now I live in Maine, the least diverse and most elderly state in the union. With unprecedented demographic changes facing us, I see Chavez as a beacon for the future of my adopted Pine Tree State and the nation.

Like other great Americans, Chavez — whose birth will be celebrated nationwide on March 31 — was a controversial figure when he was alive. But the universal message from this aesthetic leader’s emergence during the 1960s is a potential guide for America’s future.

Conventional civil rights observers see Chavez as a Latino labor leader who followed the path of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. But a closer look at his words and deeds tells us much more.

Like Malcolm X, and in contrast to King and Gandhi, Chavez was raised poor and uneducated, deriving strength and determination from a rural life of abuse and poverty. Unlike all of them, he served in the Navy at the end of World War II. Fifty years ago, this Saul Alinsky-style leader emerged to peacefully organize the poorest workers among us.

He began the United Farm Workers of America. As the UFW celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Maine’s state government has removed Chavez’s name from its Labor Department and is considering legislation to deny rural workers the right to organize.

As many Maine residents presently believe their state’s environment may be threatened, no other civil rights figure connected the work world with life’s environmental quality as Chavez did. His last and longest fast, of 36 days in 1988, was over the pesticide poisoning of farm workers. They are “society’s canaries,” Chavez reminded us, because farm workers are the first affected by pesticides from working to produce the food we eat.

A spiritual Catholic, Chavez broke Christ’s bread with Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, after fasting like Gandhi to rededicate his movement to nonviolence. He led boycotts supported by millions of Americans, including countless Mainers. Yet, his spiritualism went much further.

The Chavez practice of human rights a generation ago extended to stands that few of his contemporaries considered. As the nation remains conflicted on sexual rights and orientation, Chavez ensured that women like Dolores Huerta, as well as men help organize and lead his movement. He early and steadfastly supported gay rights in the 1970s — not a popular position then among many of his supporters.

In uncertain economic times, citizens inside and outside of Maine have become more hostile toward an increasingly diverse America. But “thank God” for all the Mainers of color not born here, one state economist noted. “Without them, we’d be 50th in nearly every measure of population growth.” A Harvard Medical School-trained retired Maine doctor who worked with Chavez emphasized that the self-educated farm labor leader, who never made it past the eighth grade, was extremely well read and one of the most brilliant men he ever met. That intelligence and commitment of service to others extended to those opposing the Vietnam War and America’s most voiceless: undocumented immigrants.

“Our job,” Chavez said in rejecting calls to check the legal papers of farm workers laboring under UFW contracts, “is to represent good, hard-working people, whomever they are.”

“In a politically diverse nation,” Snowe wrote recently, “common ground” can “achieve results for common good.” Maine and America did that in the last century, surviving world conflicts, increasing economic equity, integrating immigrants and ending Southern-style racial apartheid.

Like the nation, Maine faces issues of economic concentration and transforming diversity. Four years ago, it seemed to embrace those challenges by supporting an African American presidential candidate who borrowed Chavez’s Si Se Puede! — Yes, We Can — clarion call as his campaign theme.

Aspiring Maine candidates are vying to succeed Sen. Snowe. President Obama visits Maine today, the day before Christine Chavez arrives to publicly celebrate her grandfather’s birthday. She will speak about what Chavez’s values mean to her as a granddaughter and public leader for this American century. What better moment to begin anew a Chavez yes-we-can spirit and reaffirm Snowe’s hope for the common good.

 

– Special to The Press Herald