On June 21, 2017, José Angel Gutierrez, Professor Emeritus from the University of Texas-Arlington, delivered a presentation to the Michigan State University (MSU) and Greater Lansing communities. Gutierrez’ presentation was based on the findings of his forthcoming book through MSU Press on the FBI’s surveillance of Cesar E. Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers Union. The topic also overlaps with a project under development at JSRI and MSU Library which is collecting surveillance files on Chicano Movement leaders.
Gutierrez started with a brief biography of Chavez, a native of Yuma, Arizona, who served in the Navy during World War II. After the war, Chavez became active in community organizing with the Community Service Organization (CSO). He went on to establish the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). With the help of Dolores Huerta and other associates, Chavez became the face of the UFW and led the efforts to improve working conditions and wages for farm workers. His determination to organize farm workers faced a powerful backlash by growers and farm owners threatened directly by his efforts.
At the time, the United States was amid the Cold War and iron-fisted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover despised communists and those he accused of being communists. As Chavez and the UFW challenged the status quo they attracted considerable attention from local law enforcement agencies and from the FBI. Under the guise that Chavez was a communist agent, Hoover kept close surveillance of him and the UFW. Steps were taken by the nation’s top law enforcement agency to infiltrate the UFW by undercover agents posing as members. The FBI’s unwarranted surveillance caused Chavez tremendous mental anguish and, as suggested by Gutierrez, irreversible effects to his health from living in a stressful state.
Organizing farm workers in California brought Chavez and the UFW face-to-face with California’s growers who were closely allied with conservative Californian politicians such Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Subsequently, both Nixon and Reagan saw Chavez and the UFW as enemies to their political interests and supporters. Thus, they became blind to the desperate social-economic and labor conditions that confronted farmworkers.
Gutierrez shared with audience members the desperate measures the FBI took in undermining Chavez’ efforts to promote the labor rights of farm workers. At the same time, Chavez’ life was threatened numerous times and the UFW offices bombed, yet the FBI took little interest in identifying and arresting the culprits. For Chicanos and minorities alike this has been the criminal justice system they have confronted many times.
Gutierrez concluded his presentation by pointing out the physical and mental toll that surveillance took on Chavez. Mental stress and Chavez’ famous hunger strikes severely weakened him and may have contributed to his early death at the age of 66. In 1993, he was the first of the four most prominent Chicano civil rights leaders to pass away; Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales followed in 2005 at the age of 76, Reies Lopez Tijerina followed in 2015 at the age of 88, and José Angel Gutierrez, the youngest of the four, remains living at the age of 73. Chavez’s legacy lives on. Through his efforts in labor organizing he sought to make the United States a more democratic country while bringing improvements to farmworkers. In Michigan, where labor unions produced at one point the highest paid blue-collar worker on the planet, Chavez should be recognized and celebrated.
In remembering Cesar E. Chavez, we must recall not only his non-violent approach to organizing farmworkers, but his non-violent responses to the violence he and the UFW faced in attempting to improve the lives of farmworkers in the United States. His selfless efforts are a symbol of the sacrifices patriotic Americans have dedicated to making this country representative of the people rather than special interests. Regardless, of color, creed, or gender those struggles must continue as we are confronted with similar issues today. It is also important to acknowledge the significance of farmworkers, as their contributions to the nation are essential and of great significance. Chavez is an American hero deserving of honor and broad recognition. Viva Chavez!