In 1952 a community organizer named Fred Ross went into the tough San Jose barrio known as Salsipuedes (the word means, "Get out if you can") to help set up a civil rights group for the area's Mexican-Americans. Ross knew he needed a local Chicano to help him, and at one meeting he ran across an uneducated but intense young man named Cesar Chavez. That night Ross wrote in his dairy, "I think I found the guy I'm looking for."
Little did Ross know how prescient those words would be. More than 40 years later, Chavez has died as one of California's most noteworthy public figures. From 1965, when he burst onto the national scene as president of the United Farm Workers Union, Chavez struggled persistently to improve the lot of farm laborers. Often his tactics--strikes, boycotts, fasts--were controversial. But the issues he raised--better wages and working conditions for the rural poor, less use of pesticides in agriculture--were important, and still are.
There is irony in the fact Chavez died in a small farming town in Arizona, not far from where he was born in 1927. Like many poor migrant youngsters, even in the present day, Chavez dropped out of school at an early age to help support his family. Those early years of work in the fields, and the sometimes virulent discrimination against his family, left Chavez with bitter memories.
Yet, like many other Chicanos of his generation, Chavez did not let that anger alienate him from American society. He joined the Navy and returned from the service determined to change things. Even before meeting Ross, who taught him the organizing theories of Saul Alinsky, Chavez had been exposed to Catholic social teachings by an activist priest. He had even begun reading about the nonviolent political change advocated by Ghandi.
As Ross' anecdote suggests, Chavez had an impact long before he launched the UFW. The civic group he helped Ross set up, Community Services Organization, still exists. And the UFW has inspired and trained young Latinos for social activism from south Texas to Washington state. That is why Chavez will be mourned not just in farm labor camps but in urban barrios from Salsipuedes to East L.A.--and in many other places that treasure justice.