Google’s decision to display the visage of Cesar Chavez on Easter Sunday has provoked immediate fury from many corners. The decision indeed is difficult to justify. Yet Google’s odd choice should remind us that whatever one thinks of Chavez’s politics, they are impossible to understand apart from his belief in the resurrected Christ.
As Ronald A. Wells recounts in the Journal of Presbyterian History, in 1966 the United Farm Workers organized a march from Delano, California, to the state capitol of California in order to demand recognition of the rights of farm workers. While the outside world saw Chavez’s protest as a political march, he and the farm workers also saw it as a pilgrimage. The slogan they chose was “Peregrinacion, Penitencia, Revolucion,” or “Pilgrimage, Penitence, Revolution.”
As seen in archival footage from KQED television, the Christian nature of the event was unmistakable. The 300-mile march, led by an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was scheduled to end on Good Friday. A large rally, beginning with Mass, was to take place on Easter Sunday.
In an open letter, Chavez explained his hope that the march would function as a pilgrimage, that it would not only raise awareness of injustice, but also remind strikers of their own sins:
Throughout the Spanish-speaking world there is another tradition that touches the present march, that of Lenten penitential processions. . . . [It is] in the blood of the Mexican American and the Delano March will therefore be one of penance—public penance for the sins of the strikers, their own personal sins as well as their yielding perhaps to feelings of hatred and revenge in the strike itself. They hope by the march to set themselves at peace with the Lord, so that the justice of their cause will be purified of lesser motivations.
As a Christian, Chavez believed that the first revolution had to be a revolution of the soul, which meant that personal sacrifices were demanded—not just of the oppressor, but of the oppressed. Journalist Frank Bardacke observed, “What many of the liberals and radicals on the staff of the union could never understand was that all the fasts, the long marches and the insistence on personal sacrifice were not publicity gimmicks, they were the essential Chavez.”
Chavez understood at least in part Nicolás Gómez Dávila’s warning that too often politics consists of “schemes for putting the Beatitudes into effect,” for “reducing to a collective structure external to the individual an ethical behavior that, unless it is individual and internal, is nothing.”
For Chavez, social reform was never merely external. Without peace of spirit and purity of heart, there was little point in pursuing justice. Collective bargaining, just wages, shorter workdays: for Chavez none of these made sense outside the fact of his risen Lord.