Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Day Cesar Chavez Came to Town

Cesar Chavez, 1974

During the summer of 1974, Bishop Walter Sullivan of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, invited Cesar Chavez to visit and share the story of his work on behalf of the United Farm Workers.

Throughout his career, Bishop Sullivan has been dedicated to advancing the cause of social justice. Inviting union leader Chavez to Richmond, a most conservative capital of a "right to work" state, was very much in keeping with the Bishop’s style of shaking things up.

Cesar Chavez became known to most people as a result of his help instigating a nationwide boycott of California grapes during the mid-1960s. What probably isn’t as well known, and may surprise some people, is that Chavez and the UFW were consistent advocates of strict immigration law enforcement, and on many occasions reported illegal immigrant workers to the authorities.

The evening of Chavez’ presentation, people milled outside Cathedral Center, a dingy former parochial school in Richmond’s Fan District, until just before the presentation was scheduled to begin. They were an eclectic mix of nuns, priests, community activists, volunteers and curious strays like me.

The presentation was held in a plain basement meeting room. Fluorescent light fixtures hummed overhead. An old bed sheet on which “Victory to the United Farm Workers” was written hung behind the makeshift stage. The “stage” was actually nothing more than a microphone on a stand, a simple wooden lectern and a box for the short-statured Chavez to stand on so that he could be seen above the microphone.

While the bishop made his introductions, a toddler, shirtless because of the warm night, crawled over to the box and pulled himself up by the bishop’s pant leg. No one questioned the child’s presence and no one made a move to retrieve the child, nor did the bishop miss a beat in his remarks.

The crowd greeted Chavez warmly. He spoke calmly, but emphatically about the UFW’s quest for fair wages for all farm workers, especially migrant workers. He was passionate about the need to protect the jobs of farm workers against the growing tide of illegal immigrant farm workers, who Chavez believed undermined not only the wages, but also the integrity of legal workers.

I took many pictures that night. The only ones that survive can be seen here.

1 comment:

  1. That must have been an amazing night. I was always fascinated by him. Great photos! You did a great job of describing this event, too, from the bishop to the child to Chavez's stature.