Chavez: ′Migrant workers in the US deserve new laws′ | Globalization | DW | 14.04.2014
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Chavez: 'Migrant workers in the US deserve new laws'

A new film depicting the life of American migrant rights campaigner Cesar Chavez recently opened in US cinemas. DW spoke to Chavez's son, Paul, who says the rights of migrant workers are often still forgotten today.

The newly-released film "Cesar Chavez" depicts the battles the civil rights leader fought while trying to start a union for migrant farm laborers in California in the early 1960s. The organization, now called United Farm Workers of America (UFW), continues to work across the country. Cesar Chavez died in 1993 at the age of 66.

Paul Chavez, one of Cesar Chavez's eight children, runs the Cesar Chavez Foundation, which works with the UFW to improve migrant workers' rights and living conditions.

DW: If he were alive today, how would your father have reacted to the massive number of deportations of migrants from the United States that are occurring currently?

Paul Chavez: The first thing he would do is remind us that we have a broken system of migration here in the United States, and he would be the first to advocate for an overhaul of existing laws. He would push for a fair immigration reform act that really recognizes the hard-working sacrifice that immigrants make to this country, that make it the place that it is today.

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez's birthday is a holiday in several US states, including California

We have the greatest abundance of food that the world has ever known, and it's due in large part to immigrant farm workers from Mexico. We think it's the right thing to do to reward these people with immigration reform.

What was your father like privately? What sort of a person was he?

My father was a man of the earth, he wasn't a big, powerful figure. He was small, he was dark, he had really strong Indian features. But he had this conviction that this country needed to afford its promise to all, regardless of color or creed. My father was a quiet man but he was a determined man. One of the things that stood out about him was that he had determination. He really believed that if you worked hard and if you never gave up, then you could overcome obstacles. That's something that we saw in his public life but that was also a hallmark of who he was as an individual.

You've seen the film "Cesar Chavez." Does it accurately represent who your father was? Some people have said there is a bit of hero-worship in the film.

It does show my father in a pretty accurate light. It's a Hollywood feature, so some of the events and people that played important roles have been left out, but I think it really does capture my father. It shows him as an ordinary man who was facing an extraordinary set of circumstances. It shows not only the classic conflict between workers and employers, but also the internal conflicts that farm workers experienced. The issue of non-violence is portrayed, and that was a big issue for my father; in fact he fasted because of that. So, it showed the thorns and warts of farm workers, who were not perfect people.

It also showed his relationship with my mother and my older brother. Apart from being an extraordinary leader, he was a man that suffered and sacrificed a lot to do his work.

The film definitely does show how demanding your father's work was on your family's life. How tough was it for you personally, growing up in the shadow of your father's work?

We were eight brothers and sisters, and I was one of the younger ones. It was much more difficult for my older brothers and sisters. We learned at an early age that we were going to have to share my father with others. He was away a lot and even when he was at home, there were people vying for his attention. Many times he wasn't there for those things that kids do, when growing up. Many times he missed birthdays because he was out doing his work.

But he ensured that his work was big enough that it could include his family. While we didn't go to picnics with my dad, we did go with him to picket lines, marches and union conventions, so there was a role for us to play.

Protesters in Washington demand reforms to the US's immigration laws

Protesters in Washington have been demanding immigration reforms

How many migrant workers are undocumented these days in the US? Is it still a big issue?

It's a bigger issue now than when my father was alive. When my father first started organizing protests in the 1960s, it was mainly a legal, documented workforce. Today, 50 years down the track, probably close to 90 percent of farm workers are recent immigrants. I would say that close to 85 percent of those are undocumented. There are new waves of workers coming in all the time, especially from the southern parts of Mexico. There are also a lot of indigenous workers. Some of these people don't even speak Spanish - they speak native dialects.

These days the UFW focuses on working with these new groups of farm workers who maybe have not even heard of Cesar Chavez. Our job is to continue to offer them protection and benefits in the workplace and we also talk to them about my father's work and life. We hope that my father's example can help them to step up and be their brothers' keepers.

Paul Chavez heads the Cesar Chavez Foundation. The organization provides low-cost housing and education for farm workers and poor Latino families. It also runs Radio Campesina, a nine-station Spanish-language radio network.

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