California Governor Jerry Brown has declared today as Cesar Chavez Day. Coincidentally, a new biopic about the labor rights activist was released last week. The United Farm Workers, the organization Chavez co-founded, galvanized years-long strikes and boycotts on behalf of the rights of 50,000 farm workers in California, Texas and Florida in the early sixties. Chavez, himself, popularized the phrase, “Si, se puede,” co-opted by the Obama campaign in 2008.
However, the recent struggles with immigration reform in America and a new era of political correctness has raised concerns about Chavez’s early anti-immigration tactics that had the Latino community divided.
When the UFW leaders told the newly-minted farm workers union to go on strike, farm owners simply lured new Mexican immigrants to work the fields during the strike by issuing temporary green cards.
Rightly so, this angered the UFW, whose labor efforts were being under-minded by the flow of new immigrants. Chavez and the UFW were instrumental in Congress shutting down the controversial Braceros Program in 1964. The UFW’s position was equal parts concern for domestic farm workers being replaced by cheap labor and also claims that the program “abused” migrant workers.
The anger turned ugly, however, when the UFW began a working relationship with border patrol to report undocumented immigrants who replaced domestic workers by crossing the picket lines. These strikebreakers and others who refused to join Chavez’s union were promptly deported.
In 1973, the UFW took it upon themselves to prevent immigrants from crossing the border by setting up a “wet line” at the Mexican border near Yuma, Arizona. UFW members camped out in army tents and waited to report any “illegal” immigration activity. Although Chavez’s movement is lauded as being a prime example of the power of anti-violent reform, the struggle was not always free of conflict. During an event at the “wet line,” Manuel Chavez (Cesar’s cousin) initiated a physical fight between UFW members and immigrants who crossed the border.
In the book, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, author Frank Bardacke writes: “County, state, and federal officials gave the UFW a free hand in this wilderness. No judge’s order put any limit on what the union’s night patrol might do to people it caught … If you got picked up by the UFW, you were on your own.”
Although Chavez, himself, was not directly involved in these confrontations over the “wet line,” he did propagate the use of the racial slur “wet back” in the media to refer to the Mexican immigrants breaking the strikes. In a 1972 interview with KQED, Chavez liberally used the term to explain the UFW’s position.
The organization’s embrace of racist language and stereotypes all throughout the 60s and 70s was well documented in articles from El Malcriado, a farm worker journal. Headlines compiled the End 1492 blog include, “The Wetback Game,” “Wetbacks Flood California,” and “La Migra Shapes up…We Hope.”
These controversial tactics did not go unnoticed at the time. Chicago scholar David E. Gutierrez writes in his book, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants and the Politics of Ethnicity, that Chavez’s highly vocal anti-immigration stance did not go over too pleasantly with other Chicano and Mexican American activist groups.
CASA and National Coalition of Fair Immigration Laws and Practices led the charge against the UFW’s deportation tactics. Their efforts were so successful that it’s often credited as the reason why the UFW revamped their staunch anti-immigration policies to make them more inclusive of all farm workers, both citizens and undocumented. However, UFW’s softer approach did not fare well with their core base and their member numbers began to dwindle.