César Chávez. My hero.
It was the spring of 1972. I was a fairly new immigrant in this country and a new resident of Stanislaus County, not to mention a newly ordained priest ready to save souls and change the world, particularly after spending two years of quiet life as a full-time student priest in Rome.
On a hot afternoon in March, with enthusiasm and a certain degree of apprehension, I went to Stockton to listen to Dolores Huerta's speech about the United Farm Workers strike and the grape boycott going on all over the valley. On my way to Modesto, I decided to get more involved, personally and on behalf of the Catholic Church as an institution. The great majority of the priests were pretty distant and silent about César Chávez's movement, even though many of their parishioners were UFW members.
For several months on Saturdays, I visited some of the fields where the farmworkers were on strike. I often said the Catholic mass right there with them. On some occasions, César would be there supporting the workers. A few times, usually after the Mass, I spent time with him talking about the union. Sometimes, he shared very personal ideas, thoughts and emotions.
One of the issues that impressed me the most was his commitment to the health, financial status and well-being of the workers. He was totally clear about that, to the point that he could have given his life for the cause. I thought to myself: What an irony. A man totally against violence was willing to sacrifice his life for others. Actually, he was close to sacrificing his life on more than one occasion with his hunger strikes.
He often expressed to me his great concern -- and strong fear -- about the movement turning into violence. There were always small groups within the union who were ready and willing to use violence at any moment.
It reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. What kept them going day after day in the face of injustice, oppression, poverty, even discrimination, but always maintaining the struggle within peaceful means? After all, they lived -- and we continue to live -- in a very violent society. It is an enigma how much violence has been committed in history, many times in the name of religion. And the violence and wars continue today, all over the world, though we are very good at justifying it in the name of selected principles and ideologies of security and democracy.
Sometimes, coming back from spending the afternoon with the workers in the fields to my serene room at St. Stanislaus Church, it was very difficult to let go of my anger and even, I admit, a bit of thirst for revenge. It was difficult to forget the injustice, the frugal pay for hours and hours of heavy work in hot weather, the working and living conditions and the constant discrimination against the farmworkers and their families.
It was difficult to understand -- and still is -- how César was able to maintain so many different people in the union faithful to his commitment to peace and nonviolence.
Perhaps that is the unique personality and charisma of true heroes. It could be that motivation, vision and charisma that motivates us to change for the better. My life certainly changed in some ways because of my contact with César.
He will always be my mentor and my hero.
Martin is a Modesto resident.