How Cesar Chavez Inspired My Journey to Environmentalism

By Laura Torres

 

As we recognize Cesar Chavez Day today, I find myself reflecting on how Chavez’s life and teachings influenced my own life, and shaped my perspective of what it means to be an environmentalist.

In 1997, I transitioned from elementary to middle school. Beyond the superficial changes, (from collecting Lisa Frank stickers and wearing a lot of pink to wearing only dark colors, crazy hoop earrings and way too much eyeliner, and lipstick too) my mind was also transforming.

My English teacher Mr. Duenas, thankfully, recognized that many of my classmates were experiencing similar evolutions.  He was patient and understanding with his squirrely class, and treated us with respect. He became our advocate when he made it his mission to teach us about our Mexican-American history. I was immediately drawn to Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the many leaders associated with the farmworkers’ struggles. I also gained a new appreciation and understanding for what it meant to be a leader

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Learning about Cesar Chavez, I gained an understanding of what it looks like when communities like mine take a stand for their own health and wellness. The 1990’s was a difficult time for my community of Boyle Heights and I was familiar with struggle. As I learned about the violence Cesar Chavez and other farmers faced, I felt angry. However, I became inspired when I learned about his organizing. Upon understanding the story of the grape strike, I felt hopeful to know that people can make an impact and demand a life with dignity. And I felt empowered to know that I too could improve conditions in my own community.

Aside from the grape strike and hunger strikes that he is primarily known for, Chavez was concerned about the damage that humans cause to the earth. In learning about his life and the early work of the United Farm Workers, it is clear Cesar Chavez was creating a movement that was about much more than labor rights. He had a vision of a better quality of life for the poor, one in which the environment was healthy, too.

He was frustrated by the lack of awareness of threats to the planet, stating, “It’s amazing how people can get so excited about a rocket to the moon and not give a damn about smog, oil leaks, the devastation of the environment with pesticides, hunger, disease. When the poor share some of the power that the affluent now monopolize, we will give a damn.”

I began to question the conditions in my community. Chavez’s fight for a life with dignity made me see that my family experienced so many of the same struggles of working in painful conditions for low pay. This stuck with me through my college years, where I learned about how communities of color are the most affected by pollution. I thought of Boyle Heights, where I grew up, which is surrounded by freeways and adjacent to factories. I thought of the cement-covered LA River, and of the difficulties my community faces in accessing healthy food and open green space. Chavez’s analysis of power and his dedication to organizing made me feel the responsibility to organize and look at power structures in my own life. And this was the dawn of my professional career as an organizer; I want to know that I am active in reminding my community that we have power when we organize.

Cesar Chavez once said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.” This comment has stayed with me through my career, from my years as an education-focused organizer to present day.

I learned a lot in my time working with parents in my previous positions as a parent advocate, community organizer, and project manager for community gardens. Many of the parents I worked with were immigrants from Latin America, and I distinctly recall a nostalgia for the nature of their homeland. They shared how they raised their own food and grew up playing outdoors. Many lamented that their children would not experience a childhood in the hills, bonding with animals or simply being able to breathe fresh air. As I became friends with some of them on social media, they would marvel at my pictures of hikes. They were shocked that I could access the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains.  They had only known the San Gabriels as a faraway background or the Santa Monica Mountains as a place in which they worked for rich people but had no idea that they were public lands. I found myself spending time chatting with them about self-care by eating healthy food and the importance of spending time outdoors.  I saw the opportunity to connect our conversations on food to the legacy of Cesar Chavez.

Chavez was an environmentalist who grew organic food and incorporated hikes, meditation and prayer into his daily life. His connection to nature and his regular hikes were the self-care, which provided him with strength to continue to advocate for a life with dignity. His close connection to the land and tremendous respect for nature is a reminder that the word ‘environmentalist’ takes many shapes. Being an environmentalist goes deeper than knowing where the closest organic co-op is, or staying up to date on the latest eco-trends. It’s about having respect for the environment and a willingness to care for nature in our everyday lives.

In my own life, I seek time outdoors to clear my head, to relieve the stress of city life, and to rekindle my sense of adventure. I have come to believe that access to natural spaces is essential for improving one’s quality of life. I experienced the benefits of spending time in nature in my own life, and began to share it with friends
and family. I officially  joined Latino Outdoors as a volunteer in 2015 as I felt need to increase the representations of Latinos, and, more specifically, Latinas in the outdoors. Joining Latino Outdoors has helped me embrace my culture and connect with some amazing people. Being a part of this group reminds me of Cesar Chavez outlook, “Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures”.
Access to nature has become a major part of my career, through advocating for an expanded Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area that would reach more Los Angeles-area communities and foster stronger connections to nature. I have no doubt that increased access to nature is beneficial for LA. I am grateful to combine my passion for conservation and preservation of history in my work.

The teachings of Cesar Chavez, by way of Mr. Duenas, had a profound impact on my life that continue to present themselves each day. Cesar Chavez is an example of someone who committed himself to organizing for an improved quality of life, while keeping his cultural practices and connecting with the environment. I am inspired to do the same as I work to connect Angelinos to public lands and preserve the great legacy of Cesar Chavez, at Cesar Chavez National Monument, and to expand his and the farmworkers’ story through sites across California and Arizona. Like Cesar Chavez, I am an environmentalist, because I believe it’s an essential part of living a better quality of life. On Cesar Chavez Day and each day forward, I will work to advocate for fair representation in our National Park System and speak up for opportunities to share the stories of Cesar Chavez and the many people who helped shape our country’s shared history. Si se puede!

 

 

 

 

 

 


Cesar Chavez Taught Me to Love Climbing Mountains ~by Caro Garcia

This blog was originally posted in Caro Luevano-Garcia’s blog

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I grew up in Arvin, California. This small town sits at the foot of Bear Mountain, toward the south-eastern end of the Central Valley. I recall that if it were a good year, the snow level might reach down past the foothills to the town itself, which inevitably led to an abundant display of wild flowers in the spring. In the mountains, toward the Tehachapi Pass, nuzzled into a small set of hills is Keene, the location of the United Farm Workers Union offices/compound, now a National Monument. The monument is part of a property known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz. When we went there for meetings, or to work on the property itself, or to work on boycott signs etc, it was simply called, La Paz. Beside the occasional trip to see the snow, going to La Paz was as close to going into nature as I got.

I remember the huelga days, through the eyes of a child.

I remember the rush of activity at my aunt’s home one afternoon when she announced that Cesar would be coming to the house for a meeting. I didn’t quite understand why or what for, but it was exciting. For me though, hanging out with cousins (I am the second oldest of the group) was all that mattered. The camaraderie of adults joined together by a cause would trickle down to the children, who with every passing event grew stronger in their own perception and self awareness.

I was about ten years old (1972) when I became acutely aware of what was going on and started asking questions. I learned about working conditions, wages, boycotts and fasting. I learned about fairness, basic rights, speaking out, and struggling to make life better. I learned to march in protest.

Chavez once said that, “self dedication is a spiritual experience.” He spoke of his belief that farm workers felt pride in their hard work, expertise and talent in helping crops grow to produce a bounty that ironically gentle hands would harvest to feed the world. Their work was in part a labor of love and respect for the Earth itself.
He was correct. When my family joined in the struggle for justice, I learned about the right to feel proud of who my mom and dad are, and the work they did to keep our family fed and in good health. I learned over the years that their work was more than just a paycheck. In learning to be proud of my ethnicity and culture, I learned also of racism.

I grew up knowing that the land my father managed was not ours, but that its bounty was a direct result of his dedication and commitment to the crops, and for that we could all be proud. His old truck wore a bumper sticker that read, “When you talk bad about a farmer, don’t talk with your mouth full.”

In learning that the growers finally signed contracts and that people as far away as England cared about where and how their food was grown, I learned to value my parents and their labor. Ultimately, I learned to value myself. I learned that I could do anything I wanted if I planned well, worked hard, remembered who I am, and celebrated myself accordingly. Celebrating oneself is not a naturally occurring phenomenon amongst the humble.
From Cesar I learned that we all need help sometimes (communities) and that learning from others (MLK, Gandhi) is just as smart if not smarter than trying to do it alone without input.

So when I finally accepted an invitation to go backpacking in Yosemite, an invitation I balked at for years, I jumped in with both feet. I asked questions, researched, bought equipment and most importantly, I said to myself, “Si se puede!” (I can do this!)
That said, I was like many grown ups, keenly aware of all the things that could go wrong, not the least of which was what my hair would look like after sleeping in the wild. One trip was all it took. I was hooked. But why? What is it about mountains that make us feel alive? For me, it was knowing in retrospect, at the end of it all, that in fact, I did it and I did not die.

I will not lie to you, I didn’t think of much beyond surviving that first trip. I stared down Half Dome. It was the kind of feeling you get when you stand up to a bully; a little scared, a little excited, heart racing, and looking around to see who has your back. I took pictures and when it was safe, I looked back and reflected. We were there. We did that. We saw that. We made it back. Look how far we went.
But a more meaningful change occurred within me as well. Like Cesar said, “Once chosen change begins, it cannot be reversed.” I wanted to go back. I wanted to see what else I could see, feel, touch, experience. Each trip we faced different mountains, different water crossings, different challenges. Each trip, I thought, I can do this!

I felt I was changing. I knew that in facing and conquering mountains I was conquering any doubts I had about what kind of person I am. Sir Edmund Hillary said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” He and Cesar both knew that once a challenge was met, the challenged would be changed forever.
Being a great strategist, Cesar learned from each mistake, and each triumph. Likewise, I have learned a lesson on each trail, water crossing, pass, and mountain. Sometimes those lessons are about the trekking, about the process; how to make something happen. The lessons are about learning to get from one point to another without getting wet, slipping, falling, etc. Sometimes those lessons are more about content and meaning than process.
About community, Cesar said, “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with them. The people that give you their food, give you their heart.” In the mountains, we share food, not only because it lightens our loads, but because it lightens our hearts as well. The community of hikers and backpackers is at once conjoined and distant. There is a respect for privacy and the sacred experience of being with oneself in the wilderness. At the same time, there is an understanding that if help is needed, help will be provided, even if its in the form of a bowl of chicken soup.

More frequently, the lessons for me are reflective, about myself. I truly am more than I think I am. I am bigger than my problems and obstacles. It’s a matter of having the courage to discover the boundaries of my own comfort zone, and then expanding them. It’s a matter of paying attention to what I say to myself when I’m doing something scary and then living the self talk. The lessons I have learned on a mountain are just as applicable in my day to day life. When I come across an injustice, I no longer fear the challenge of addressing the issue. I just plan, organize and seek assistance.

I was a lucky child in that I was able to grow up with parents, family, friends and neighbors that were part of La Causa and as a group, we grew in self pride, self worth and self determination. Learning to confront seemingly unsolvable problems with educated grace and calm, despite feeling fear and trepidation is one of the greatest lessons that can be taught to a child. It is a lesson I learned from being around Mr. Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union.

But this was not the only lesson. Perhaps even more importantly, we learned that we matter. We learned that we can make our own contribution to society in whatever fashion we choose. Some of my generation of children whose parents were/ are UFW Union members have become doctors, lawyers, teachers, and law enforcement officers. All have become better people through our shared knowledge that we are not powerless…that we matter. Cesar wanted that. He wanted us to know we matter so that we would be strong enough to effect change.
Now it is up to us to teach our children, and our children’s children, and our neighbors’ kids, and our kids’ friends, and pretty much anyone that will listen, that going out into the wild-unknown is good for our body, mind and soul. It’s not just about seeing the land, its also about seeing ourselves in it, a part of it. Take your kids out into the world, so that they don’t believe they belong in the periphery. Once we teach our children that we belong to the world and the world belongs to us; once we teach them that we all matter, we secure their future of inclusion. Once they feel included, they will feel empowered to effect change; to be the change.
When the mountains call they whisper, “Teach the children to love climbing mountains.” Pass it on.

César E. Chávez National Monument, Keene, CA
César E. Chávez Foundation


Cesar Chavez March by Xitlaly Reyes

I grew up with a narrative of the latino family doing outdoor labor and not outdoor recreation. My grandfather was a farm worker, my father and mother were farm workers, and the homes I grew up in as a child were, more often than not, right across an agricultural field.

This month in honor of Cesar Chavez day the Lideres del Sendero hiking club which, I am a part of, participated in the Tucson, Arizona Cesar Chavez March and Rally on Saturday, April 19th in an effort to address the ethnic disparity among Saguaro National Park visitors. The disparity arises from Latinos making up about 41% of the Tucson population but only representing 3% of park visitors.

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Lideres del Sendero has many goals, one of them being combining the experience of the outdoors with cultura. As I walked down 6th ave toward Rudy Garcia Park I was surrounded by it. Chants describing issues facing the latino community such as education, immigration, workers right and even Black Lives Matter emerged from the crowds at different times. Children as young as five carried signs that were at least half their size. The elders who were able to march did and those who could not waited for our arrival at the park. It is this aspect of Latino culture that one must keep in mind when planning outdoor events or outreach to the latino community, the familia. Lideres del Sendero seeks to train community trail leaders so that they can lead their familia through hikes in and around tucson. Cesar Chavez kept familia in mind while doing his work and now his children continue to work for migrants rights.

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Once we arrived at the park the event became more of a party with storytelling and music. Giant puppets reenacted Cesar and Dolores fight for workers rights followed by a sombering reminder that rights are still being fought for here in Tucson. Workers from El Super grocery store are fighting for fair working contracts and are asking the community to support them by boycotting the chain store. After different calls to actions were made such as asking people to join in on the Cesar Chavez Day of Service and a Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta campout at Saguaro National Park I had the opportunity to get the word out for the Lideres del Sendero hiking club.
Even though I grew up with the narrative that latinos work outside and don’t really play outside I have decide to work towards creating a counter narrative where Latinos go hiking, rock climbing, and camping in the desert. By committing to go on at least one hike every week and inviting others to join me I am making a difference in my narrative.