Grandson of labor icon Cesar Chavez has a warning for America

If Cesar Chavez were alive today, he’d be fighting for Latino voters but also African Americans and Asian Americans and members of the LGBTQ community — anyone marginalized by efforts to curb voting rights and access to the polls, the labor hero’s grandson says.

“I feel like it’s not a competition,” Alejandro Chavez, 43, told CNN. “There’s plenty of oppression to go around.”

As organizers prepared for the multicity March On for Voting Rights on Saturday, the anniversary of 1963’s March on Washington, much of the focus has been on the main event in the nation’s capital. There, Martin Luther King III will rally demonstrators much like his dad did 58 years prior, when he told a quarter million people on the National Mall, “I have a dream …”

Alejandro Chavez will be in Phoenix, another city hosting flagship events. Those fighting for voting rights in Arizona will join congregants of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, a predominantly Black church that will celebrate its centennial next year.

Ahead of this weekend’s demonstrations, Chavez sat down with CNN to talk about his grandfather’s relationship with MLK, the time his children met Congressman John Lewis, the plight of Latino voters in Arizona and why the battles to defend Black votes and brown votes are one in the same (the interview has been edited for length and clarity).

Your grandfather is a hero of the labor movement, but he got started with mentors Fred Ross and Father Donald McDonnell organizing voting drives. Tell us about this aspect of your granddad’s legacy.

My grandfather was very committed to his faith. He wrote, “Prayer of the Farm Workers’ Struggle.” The first line starts, “Show me the suffering of the most miserable; So I will know my people’s plight.” The last lines are, “Help us love even those who hate us; So we can change the world.” And that’s just the way he started every meeting, every meal, every wedding, every birthday, every event.

Working with Fred and Father (McDonnell) was where he got these two separate ideas to merge. Actually, a little story I’ll share is that my grandfather was very into democracy — believe it or not (chuckles) — and he went to my grandmother and he told her, “The work that we’re doing is amazing,” but in order to help the farm workers the way they needed to be helped, he had to be in the valley, had to be in the fields. Everyone knows my grandmother told him, “We’ll give it 10 years. We have a union or not, we’ll give it 10 years.”

So they got the family together and voted on if they were going to do this. My grandfather laid it out in simple terms — not like, “Oh, are we going to move?” — but he said we can’t help people here (in East Los Angeles). You’re talking about your tios (uncles), your tias (aunts), your primos (cousins) suffering in the fields and people you don’t know who are suffering. If we want to help, we have to be willing to give up what we have. Now, did everyone vote the same way? No, but the sentiment of the heart of the family was there, and so I think that was only possible by having the faith that you get in working with a father, a priest, a rabbi, what have you.

Ultimately, his thing was that you had faith. What’s having more faith than organizing and registering voters and taking what you believe to the people? What do you need more than 100% faith that it can be done? Most people don’t realize it doesn’t happen without those two separately coming into his life and then him finding a point where they meet. In Fred Ross’ writings, there’s a note on when he met my grandfather. It says, “I think I’ve found the guy I’ve been looking for.”

What are some of the obstacles to voting unique to Latinos and Hispanics today?

IDs are a great one. My legal name on paper is Alejandro Cesario Reyes Chavez, four solid names. My birth certificate didn’t have room for two middle names so they had to hyphenate it. Well, over the years, I’ve got it finally corrected, but it used to be, “Am I Alejandro Chavez? Am I Alejandro Cesario? Am I Alejandro Cesario Chavez? Which one’s the last name?” and so voting was always a challenge. I’d have to vote provisional and then go to the county. That’s a big thing, I think, happens a lot in Latino communities. We give four names, sometimes five.

Two, is people have different forms of ID. Some people don’t drive, so a driver’s license isn’t it. Depending on where you are, you may not drive. If you look in New York, for example, who drives in New York City? Imagine being an immigrant in that town, trying to get an ID to just vote when you don’t drive.

Then the vote by mail is huge because when you’re in the field, you’re out on a job site, it’s not easy to ask your foreperson, “Hey can I go vote?” Yes, by law, you are granted it, but we’re talking about the realities of employers. It’s hard to vote at the polls when you go to work at 4 a.m. and then you get off at 5:30 p.m. and the polls close at 6.

August 28 is the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech. King once wrote your father, praising his devotion, his fasting for farm workers’ rights. He wrote, “The plight of your people and ours is so grave that we all desperately need the inspiring example and effective leadership you have given.” What did the telegram mean to your grandfather?

It meant a lot, and in later writings, you’ll see he talks about how the farm worker movement derived its power, its ability to participate nonviolently, its drive from Dr. King, the civil rights and the Black movement at the time. People actually probably don’t know Coretta Scott King was a huge supporter of my grandfather. She came out before he broke his fast in Phoenix in 1972, where the phrase, “Si, se puede!” was first kind of coined, and other times. That telegram was the handshake reached out, and while they were never physically able to (shake hands), I think they tried spiritually in many ways. That’s why I feel this August 28 event is such a big deal.

I’ve never met Martin Luther King III before, and I even fangirl over him a little bit. His father was an amazing man. He’s an amazing man himself. We’ve had a chance to chat and there’s so many similarities he and I can relate to. One is I always find it amazing how people ask if I could describe my grandfather in a word. I always call him a farm worker because before he was a civil rights leader, before he was anything, all this was based on the belief he was a farm worker himself. He was understanding of the plight, and he wanted to make it better. There was nothing wrong in being a farm worker. In fact, there was great honor — so much honor that we should treat them like we treat CEOs and every other worker.

Martin relayed to me similar sentiments. His father was always a reverend. He was always checking if they were doing their Bible studies. They were always having lessons. It reminds me that while these men were so great in civil rights and in labor, they actually started as organizers. They started as a voter registrars. They started out as a person that got people civically engaged. So, voting rights is essential to that very line you say: “Our movements have always been one” is essentially even more important now, and it’s going to take the leadership of you and yours to bring us all together. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Your grandfather was studious, and one person he admired was John Lewis, one of the reasons the marches are happening Saturday. Give us a sense of what Lewis and the Voting Rights Act meant to your grandfather.

I never got a chance to talk to my grandfather about John Lewis. I was about 15 when he passed away. But I will share a story, and it’s kind of the flip side. During one of the elections in 2014, John Lewis came to Arizona to work for different candidates. I was working, and my wife says, “Hey, John Lewis is here. I’m going to take the kids.” Fantastic. They should meet him. He’s a great American, an amazing man. I’m jealous. So, my wife waits with the kids and she introduces them and takes a picture. A friend of ours who was there helping staff says, “Congressman Lewis, you’ll never guess who these are.” And he says, “Who?” And he says, “These are Cesar Chavez’s great-grandchildren.”

Just thinking about it, I get emotional. He leans down to my son and he embraces him, just as much as John Lewis with the biggest heart on the planet could, and tells him, “Your great-grandfather was a hero of mine.” Hearing that always helps me recognize while we admire so many people, it’s not a one-way street. A lot of times it’s reciprocated, whether it was my grandfather and Dr. King’s appreciation for each other’s work or John Lewis just acknowledging that my grandfather was his hero. We have to remember that our legacies and the work that goes in is not a one-time thing — that we could admire those people, though we could do the work that those people admire us for, too.

The civil rights and Chicano movements of the 1960s didn’t always dovetail perfectly, for geographical and other reasons. As states pass laws diminishing voting rights and access, there’s intense focus on disenfranchised African Americans. Are Hispanics and Latinos being left out of the conversation?

I don’t think so, and I think there are several reasons: One, is that one of the largest challenges with Latino voters — however our people identify — is there’s so many continents we come from, so many cultures. I’m not saying the Black vote is monolithic, by any means, but for Latinos, they grew up culturally different. Some are United States citizens, some with South American backgrounds, Mexican backgrounds, Puerto Rican. Things can be very different in those countries. Even how you speak Spanish in East LA is different from how you’re going to speak it in the Bronx, which would be totally different than how it’s done in Texas, very Tejano.

I think that’s a challenge. We’re grouped together, but we’re different, very culturally different. I think it’s amazing and fantastic what Black Voters Matter is doing. I don’t think that when they talk about Black voters that they’re only talking about Black voters. I feel like it’s not a competition. There’s plenty of oppression to go around, whether it’s voting rights, economic adversity, health care, education. There’s no one issue that fits us. We are part of every issue.

We want to try and break that down at this event August 28. We are one. Even though my grandfather and Dr. King never got a chance to meet, this is a moment where I’d love to see Martin (III) and I use this as a fresh start. What happened in the past has happened, but it doesn’t matter because if you take away our voting rights, we have nothing left to fight for. Let’s go. We’ve got to leave it behind. We’re going to start the barbecue. We’re going to start the carne asada right away, and we want to work together. So, I really don’t feel it’s a competition as much as a chance to elevate each other.

Talk about how the labor and voting rights movements are connected today.

They’ve always been connected. Dr. King was civil rights leading, and when he passed away, he was organizing garbage workers in Tennessee, and my grandfather started organizing farm workers. Later, he got into, yes, labor, but then got into gay rights, which is now LGBTQ rights. He was huge into animal rights. He was huge into Indigenous rights and co-ops. I think the men saw what they were doing and the other side. Dr. King saw the labor. My grandfather saw the civil (rights), and unfortunately, Dr. King was taken away too soon.

At 66, (my grandfather) passed away. That was only 1993. We talk about these laws that targeted Black and brown people like they were hundreds of years ago. But right now there are people — we’re talking people in their 70s — who remember signs in parts of Delano (California) and in the South when they were teenagers. What was the famous one? “No Black people, no dogs, no Mexicans,” in that order. We talk about the stripping of voting rights. It sounds so long ago — like, “Oh my God, the Civil War” — but that’s not true. We have people that watched (the Voting Rights Act) signed and over the last 50-plus years have watched it slowly choked to death, suffocated the life out of it. Here we are with literally the last gasp.

We have to thank the Black community for holding where we are right now, probably from the mid ’70s to the 2000s really. Now, we’re trying to join them and protect what we can. If this is not going to bring us together, what’s the point of coming together to fight if we cannot defend our right to vote, which is something labor people believe in — it’s in the very essence of their union, right? — and something that we know our Constitution has promised us.

Growing up poor was a major motivator for your granddad in his work. What drives you?

Just how we were raised. I don’t know any different. The family always supported my grandfather very much, so I think I was 6 years old when I went first leafletting and putting fliers out.

Now that I reflect, things we thought were hanging out, little things turn out to be the core of who we are and what we do — whether it’s taking the time to listen, taking the time to always think of the worker. Quick story: My grandfather, next to his house, had a little piece of land. It wasn’t big, wasn’t a full acre, just some rows where he grew fruits that you could make aguas with. The movement, not a lot of money, so you weren’t buying sodas. A lot of aguas — honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon, those types of thing. You put it in water, blender, dump out the seeds, right? Just that simple. We’d help him when we’d go visit. Sometimes he’d come back and he would have us help, just pull the water, cantaloupe.

We always thought, “This is busybody work,” where he was old and he wanted our help. The more I reflect, the more I think it was a lesson to remind us where we came from, to remind us that we were one generation removed from farm workers in the fields and we should take pride and always remember — not just in our work, but in how we live. I think that’s the sentiment that drives me, knowing failure is not an option. As a Black man and a brown man in the United States, you don’t get to say, ‘I’m done with it.’ You don’t get to walk away from the day. You don’t get to walk away from the work, because it follows you. Sometimes it follows you in blue-and-red lights. Sometimes it follows you in the lack of job opportunities. Sometimes it just follows you in the day-to-day challenges that we see.

Talk about Arizona. Give us the lay of the land as it pertains to Hispanics’ and Latinos’ voting rights.

Arizona has a huge Latino population, a lot of it in Maricopa County. I’ve always thought Arizona would get more money spent on presidential campaigns, but no. So, a lot of this work has been without floods of resources. I’d go to Nevada and hear Jay-Z doing commercials for Obama. Then I’d be in Arizona and I would just hear the same standard commercial. Like, wait a minute, how are we not having some cool Latina, Chicano artist doing ads?

A lot of this can be traced back to a specific moment. I think it traces back to April 23, 2010. That’s the (anniversary of the day) my grandfather died and that’s the day they signed the bill for SB 1070 — the “show me your papers” bill. While that was horrible for so many injustices, so many fights — still fighting in many ways — it activated a group of people and Latinos. It really drove up voter participation.

We’ve seen in those last 10 years a concentrated effort on registering Latino voters, making sure they’re on the vote-by-mail lists to fight any of the voter suppression tactics and antics, so that’s a way to preempt it. They’ve been doing a lot of great work. I’m talking everybody on the ground, from the nonprofits. The national groups have been setting up, really doing an amazing job.

Latino voters are not just Spanish-speaking. Yes, you need Spanish-speaking ads to reach people, but a lot of it is policy, not just immigration. We care about other things, too.

There’s nothing worse than pandering. I’m a Latino voter; I stand up and ask a question and they want to turn everything into, “Well, if we deal with immigration …” Yes, we need to deal with immigration, but that’s not exclusively a Latino issue. There are Black people that enter. The (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community is hugely impacted. What about education for Latino communities in such-and-such ZIP codes? What about health care not being accessed? What about food apartheid? Food apartheid is a term I’m using for food deserts.

Who is talking about making sure schools have mask mandates because my son is 10 and he can’t get a shot and I’m freaked out every time we send him to class? We really, really need to make sure we are remembering that while we’re the growing population — we’re the largest minority population, which I have no idea what that means, but I’ll say it because that’s what people say — that it’s not one issue we are (tied) to. It’s how we are included in all the issues because we are impacted by everything.

Your grandfather caught blowback for the perception he directed more energy toward Mexican Americans than guest or undocumented workers. What would he think of immigration policy today and the debate surrounding it?

My grandfather wasn’t against immigration like they try to make it sound. He was against scabs; he was against union busting. There’s a big difference. Had you been bringing those people from another state to union bust, he would have been against them. He was even more against using our own culture against us and using the challenges and struggles our brothers and sisters had in their country to pit against us. The narrative has to be very straight: He was against scabs in any way.

Then, we remember in 1986, he played a huge role in pushing a Republican president at the time, to pass the largest amnesty our country’s ever seen. What was it, 3 million?

If he were alive, I like to believe he’d have played a huge role in 2006 to get senators on board to pass an immigration bill that would not have been perfect, but there’d be a lot less people worried today about their status than there are. I would take that right now.

I think he would be leading the forefront in making sure we have an immigration process and policies that treat people fairly and humanely. I think he’d even be to the point where we need to allow immigrants who live in communities to vote just because they share resources. They pay taxes, too. Taxation without representation. My grandfather really understood this Constitution thing, right?

I think he would organizing labor, faith, community leaders to, yes, get arrested and civil disobedience. People would probably have to talk him out of fasting at this age. I think if he were alive, he’d be like, “I’m going to fast.” Whoa! You’re 96 years old. You cannot be fasting like that again. I think he would be even more determined than ever to do it, and so I think he’d be right in the middle of the fight, leading the charge and supporting those on the ground doing the work.

Viva la causa” was a motto synonymous with your grandfather. What is la causa today?

La causa is much bigger now. While we think of it as the Chicano movement and so forth, it’s really not. You’ve heard Black Lives Matter stand up for immigrants and for (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA) for Latinos. That’s part of la causa, right? We hear the LGBT community with the horrible stuff that happened in Orlando. We saw how the LGBT community came out to support not just the Latinos that were impacted, but the Latino community as a whole. That is part of la causa. So, to me, la causa never dies. It just grows, and the more we add to it, the stronger it gets.

Sometimes we lose focus that la causa is everybody. It’s not the Chicano causa. La causa is the cause. It is our Black and brown brothers and sisters being shot and killed by police, our Black brothers and sisters going to jail unlawfully, our Black brothers and sisters losing job opportunities. The same with our AAPI, LGBTQ communities. What’s the saying? “Get married on Friday, lose your job on Monday.” The fact that we still have laws that don’t include them in hate laws — that is part of la causa. The ERA, women’s Equal Rights Amendment, that is part of la causa. We can never tire of the struggle. We must always, always continue. To me, la causa is alive and well and always has been and will always be, unfortunately, because of the oppressor.

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