The granddaughter of one of the most prominent civil rights activists of the 1960s spoke at Boston College this week. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, on Tuesday night, the Winston Center partnered with Thea Bowman Committee and Latinos at Boston College to bring Christine Chavez, farmworker coordinator for the United States Department of Agriculture and the granddaughter of Cesar Chavez, an activist for farm workers rights.
Tiziana Dearing, a professor at the School of Social Work, introduced Chavez and gave the audience three frames to keep in mind while listening to her story: the power of personal narrative, how gender has affected politics throughout the years, and how the U.S. is in the middle of a massive renegotiation of work.
“It’s a new social contract,” Dearing said before giving the stage to Chavez.
As Chavez walked on stage, she displayed a picture of her sister protesting in a strike for workers’ rights. She used this image to help show the audience how the labor movement fight has been a part of her entire life. Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962.
“It was this joke in the community that we didn’t have family picnics, we had family pickets.”
“My mom was Cesar’s oldest daughter, and she instilled in us this sense of pride as Latin Americans, as women, as granddaughters of Cesar Chavez,” she said.
Chavez explained how if she and her sister wanted to spend time with Cesar, who fought for fair labor treatment across the western United States, they had to be prepared to do it in unconventional ways.
“It was this joke in the community that we didn’t have family picnics, we had family pickets,” she said.
Chavez talked about her time with her grandfather with fondness. She recalls participating with him in hotel workers’ and farm workers’ protests. She learned through her activism that all labor movements are interconnected.
She went on to explain how her grandfather knew that to be really effective, his own movement had to combine with other movements. He collaborated with people like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harvey Milk. Chavez proceeded to read a telegram from King to Cesar.
“We are together with you in spirit and in determination, that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized,” Chavez said as she read the letter.
Chavez’s grandfather proceeded to boycott within the Civil Rights Movement, and then applied it to the labor movement by boycotting California table grapes all over the country.
Cesar received some criticism for combining movements, but he knew it was necessary to make a true change, Chavez said.
Chavez explained that her grandfather’s belief in justice drives her to continue his work today.
“My grandfather thought our country was better than the exclusion he encountered at home and in the service,” she said. “He never let this prejudice diminish his patriotism.”
After protesting with supermarket workers over long hours with unfair pay and treatment, and Hyatt Hotel workers, Chavez knew that the consequence for civil disobedience would be arrest. Her husband asked her if she still wanted to go for it.
“It was tough, but I’m glad I did it,” she said about the experience.
Chavez continues to try to make Cesar’s vision a reality. She advocated for a bill that pays farmworkers in California for overtime work. This legislation demonstrates that the labor movement continues after her grandfather’s death.
Chavez also explained that, as someone who studied political science, she loves talking about the current elections and urges everyone to become politically active.
She has made political activism her mission by campaigning for the Kerry-Edwards ticket in New Mexico in 2004 and serving as a surrogate speaker for then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama in 2008. She gives talks to young women about the work she does and about how to get involved, saying there are more ways than just voting to get your voice heard. She encourages all individuals, including immigrants, to become politically active.
“Lack of documentation should not stop them from getting out there and continue to take over where these powerful men have obviously failed,” Chavez said. “More than ever, they need to get out there and be politically active.”