In the midst of his people
If I could describe Cesar Chavez in one sentence, it would be this: He walked in the midst of his people. For me, this has been one of the most magnetic attributes of this native-born Arizonan and national hero. In 1966, a small band of farm workers joined Chavez in Delano, California, ready to walk 350 miles to the capitol in Sacramento. By the time they reached Sacramento, thousands had joined the march to protest the inhumane treatment of los campesinos, farm workers, who labored for ungodly hours doing backbreaking work in agricultural fields across America. Nothing could stop the United Farm Workers, marching under the red-and-black banner depicting an eagle with wings outstretched.
Did Cesar Chavez march at the head of this long trek? No. He walked in the middle of the march, as was his custom. He always considered himself “one of the people.” His connection with those he served knew no bounds. He was ready to stand in the line of fire for them; to eat, live, sleep, work, march with them; die with them, and in all things, BE who they were. He was a farm worker through and through, and that was what gave him the power to exhibit humility so pure that it confounded his enemies. In his own words, his reason for seeking to change the injustices suffered by farm workers came “from watching what my mother and father went through when I was growing up, from what we experienced as migrant farm workers.” Experience has always been the best teacher. For Chavez, it was this deep connection that began the process of change for farm workers nationwide.
Fasting in El Campito, not far from my own barrio, in one of his visits to Arizona, I recall standing outside the house where Cesar Chavez was lodged with other college youth who passed out fliers, and sang and lit candles as evening drew near. I worried he would get too thin or get sick, or maybe nobody would listen to what he had to say, and he would die. I was wrong. The man who had captivated the imagination of freedom-loving people the world over held to his purpose. He stayed in the midst of his people, just as he did on the long treks that led so many to victory.
Leadership of this kind is an awesome thing to see. If we could hold this type of leadership in our hands, it would resemble an upside-down pyramid. The point of the pyramid would be the base. In this analogy, the leader is the “point.” However, the base of the pyramid, representing the people served, remains on top – the main priority. The upside-down pyramid is a good example of Cesar Chavez’s leadership style. Indeed, he served everyone else without question. “There is no turning back,” he stated. “We are winning, because ours is a revolution of the mind and the heart. What is at stake is human dignity.” Walking in the midst of his people, Chavez cultivated a brand of human dignity that few of us will see in our lifetimes.
It is Chavez, walking in the midst of his people, who perhaps will help us understand how things must change. As long as we view things from afar, they have little to no meaning; however, once we are caught up in them, they strike at the heart. Chavez was right. He had to walk in the midst of his people; that is where his struggle for human dignity was born.
Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her writing career in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Her work has won awards and honors nationwide.