Cesar Chavez's Rabid Opposition to Illegal Immigration Not Covered in New Movie

Moviegoers who see "Cesar Chavez" when it opens today can expect a feel-good flick that portrays the Yuma-born legend as almost saintly.

The movie doesn't enlighten viewers about Chavez's intense opposition to "illegals" and "wets," as he called undocumented immigrants.

You may have heard that Chavez preached against illegal immigration, but "The Crusades of Cesar Chavez" by Miriam Pawel, a new book released in timely fashion this month by Bloomsbury Press, has the iconic Hispanic hero sounding at times like a typical nativist bigot and acting like a right-wing militia member.

See also: -Yes We Can! (Make Better Biopics than Cesar Chavez)

As the comprehensive book reveals, Chavez's battle against illegal immigration and the undocumented immigrants themselves was one of his fundamental strategies in organizing farm workers.

After his success in organizing laborers and creating public awareness of horrific work conditions, by 1973 Chavez's United Farm Workers union was broke. The activists were desperate to keep support high for its boycott of grapes and lettuce.

Chavez "seized on immigrants as the latest explanation for why the union could not win a strike," Pawel writes.

With the help of UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, Chavez launched the "Illegals Campaign," which he believed was nearly as important as the boycott. He criticized President Nixon and the Border Patrol for letting in so many "wets," as he called them.

Under the campaign, he turned the UFW into an anti-illegal-immigrant spying organization. Union volunteers became dedicated to finding and identifying undocumented immigrants working on farms -- as well as those giving them aid and comfort. The information was turned over to the feds. While doing yoga "standing on his head," Pawel writes, Chavez gave 19-year-old Liza Hirsch the job of heading up the Illegals Campaign.

"Hirsch distributed forms printed in triplicate to all union offices and directed staff members to document the presence of illegal immigrants in the fields and report them to the INS," the books states.

Chavez believed that the campaign would help his supporters explain to the public why the boycott against grapes and lettuce wasn't effective: Farmers were hiring illegal workers who didn't care about the strikes or boycott.

A favorite line of Chavez's was, "If we can get the illegals out of California, we will win the strike overnight."

Chavez's "liberal allies" and Chicano activists didn't agree with the tactic. But Chavez clung resolutely to his beliefs, breaking ties with affiliated groups who wouldn't go along. His stubbornness resulted in mutinies, with some UFW field offices "refusing to cooperate" in tracking the undocumented workers.

Huerta supported the Illegals Campaign, but suggested Chavez should tone down the rhetoric. Some people find the terms "illegals" and "wetback" offensive, she reminded him.

"Chavez turned on Huerta angrily," the book says. "'No, a spade's a spade,' he said. 'You guys get these hang-ups. Goddamn it, how do we build a union? They're wets, you know. They're wets, and let's go after them."

Huerta didn't return calls from the Phoenix New Times this week.

Besides the belief that illegal workers were taking jobs from citizens, Chavez theorized that organizing undocumented workers would be fruitless, ultimately, because farm bosses might have them rounded up by immigration authorities once they made gains. But he also felt that illegal workers were interested in money, first and foremost, and were "beholden to the grower or labor contractor." They did not make effective union activists, he thought.

Rumors abounded that UFW members had beat up some undocumented immigrants, and questions were raised about how strongly Chavez discouraged that violence.

Pawel, who we interviewed this week, says Chavez's war on undocumented workers wasn't covered in the movie, which portrays the leader's efforts several years before the Illegals Campaign. She wasn't surprised the film omits controversial aspects of Chavez's personality, in any case, because his family was involved in making it.

Chavez was a "complicated person" and "not the person portrayed in children's stories about him," the author says. (Pawel's a Pulitzer-prize-winning former editor for the Los Angeles Times and former Newsday writer. She's scheduled to speak at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe on April 8.)

The explosive quotes and descriptions of Chavez's feelings about "illegals" take up only a few pages of Pawel's massive tome, the second book she's written about the civil-rights leader and the UFW. His stance on immigration has to be taken in context of the times, clearly. But according to Pawel, Chavez's opposition to undocumented immigrants was a key factor in the 1970s decline of the UFW's power.

Since the 1950s, Chavez worried that braceros, Mexican workers imported legally by U.S. farmers, were taking jobs away from citizens. Employing "expendable" workers who could be paid less and wouldn't make as many demands for humane working conditions was seen as more desirable by the growers. Chavez believed he "couldn't build a union" with members who were undocumented, and he was suspicious about green-card holders, too, Pawel says.

She describes how Chavez worked to undermine the Arizona Farmworkers Union, which had made strides in proving that undocumented workers could, in fact, be organized to help their situation in America. The Arizona group "began to have tremendous success, and they did it by going to Mexico and talking to workers before they got here," pressuring growers to employ them and finding contracts for work, Pawel tells us. "Chavez went out and destroyed them."

Chavez supported the amnesty law of 1986 under President Reagan. But that's in keeping with his belief that legal workers were better, Pawel says, and Chavez --- who died in 1993 -- never changed his mind about that.

However, Pawel warns that "it's very hard to superimpose what's going on now, on what happened 30-odd years ago." She's certain he would "deplore the rhetoric" about undocumented immigrants from right-wing hard-liners.

One big change from the times of Chavez's heyday is the massive increase of undocumented immigrants living in the country. In some industries, like farming, a union that excluded illegal workers today would have trouble finding members.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern