The college will be closed this Thursday for Cesar Chavez day. It's the only paid California state holiday that isn't also a federal holiday. (It's also a holiday in Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. Perhaps folks in those states can tell me if their colleges and schools close?)
A brief biography is here.
I was thrilled when, a few years ago, the California state legislature chose to make Chavez's birthday a paid, mandatory holiday. It's not that I just wanted another day off, though like many who have lived abroad, I think Americans take entirely too few holidays. It's that Chavez is such a remarkable figure on so many levels. Growing up on the Monterey Peninsula, not far from the Salinas Valley growing region, I grew up with lots of Chavez and United Farm Workers lore. I went to school with the children of wealthy growers, many of whom said the most appalling things about Chavez and those on whose behalf he worked tirelessly throughout his life. (Trust me, in Monterey County, there are plenty of affluent folks in agri-business who still loathe Chavez and the UFW. For them, the paid holiday is "political correctness run amok.")
But Chavez is personally important to me. In 1987, he was one of the reasons I became a Catholic. (He wasn't the only reason: a great undergraduate seminar on patristic theology, where I read Augustine and Origen and Chrysostom, had an influence as well.) But I wanted a church where social justice concerns mixed with a deep faith, and that was what I found at the Newman Center in Berkeley. I was living in a co-op, and most of my friends were left-wing Latino Catholics (one of whom was regularly interning with the marvelous folks at California Rural Legal Assistance.) Before I'd even heard of the Mennonites, and before I became an Episcopalian, I became enchanted with this blend of radical activism and Catholic piety. My friends talked worshipfully of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta (whom I went to see speak on a couple of occasions.) I haven't read much about Chavez's faith, but here's a link to an article on the subject. It jives with what my friends told me.
In 1988, Chavez went on a 36-day fast (at age 61) to protest unjust conditions in the table grape industry. He made an explicit connection between the religious and social dimensions of fasting:
It is a fast for the purification of my own body, mind, and soul. The fast is also a heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all those who work beside me in the farmworker movement. The fast is also an act of penance for those in positions of moral authority and for all men and women activists who know what is right and just, who know that they could and should do more. The fast is finally a declaration of noncooperation with supermarkets who promote and sell and profit from California table grapes.
I fasted in solidarity with him. For one day. I knew I "could and should do more", and what I did at that time (I was at the height of my Catholicity) was pray the rosary for Chavez every day. Even though I haven't prayed the rosary in many years, whenever I think about it, I think about doing it for Cesar Chavez and for his cause.
And when I talk to folks about Cesar Chavez, I always emphasize his faith. It's a huge mistake to see him outside of the context of his passionate devotion to Christ and His church, just as it is a mistake to see Dr. King outside of the context of his commitment to Jesus. And I'm hoping that my students reflect on why it is that they don't have class on Thursday.