Friday, March 31, 2006

Cesar Chavez Celebrations

As was oft-repeated in days past, I teach in a part of the 408 where Cesar Chavez lived and worked, a barrio that went by the name Sal Si Puedes -- Get Out If You Can. A local elementary school bears his name and many of his family continue to live and advocate in this community.

Yesterday our school took part in a many-school ceremony honoring Chavez. We started by gathering in a chalk outlined circle in the quad, a way we have begun many similar events: harvest festival, Tet festival, Cinco de Mayo, POY's Principal of the Year Award. The circle is divided in two, the word "rights," chalked into one half, "responsibilities" into the other. POY talks a little about Chavez, highlighting the cross-cultural nature of his work, the emphasis the man put on the power of education, his call for unity. Then he calls up a few students who walked out of school on Monday as part of the protests against pending immigration legislation. He uses their story to illustrate the importance of both parts of the circle around which we all stand, drawing a contrast to some of the high school students who draped themselves in the Mexican flag and went out posing in traffic. Paraphrasing, "Here are students who walked out for something they believed in, who went to protest for the rights of immigrants, but here also are two students who are back in school, working hard, fulfilling their responsibilities. They understand that you cannot fight for your rights without also living up to your responsibilities."

We then line up in endless rows of five, a rejection of Sal Si Puedes, shouting "We Will Make It Better!" We spread out across the street, monochromatic in the black and white, and to the accompaniment of a less than confidently beating drum, we march down to the elementary school and line the route five other schools will take, marching past us with their UFW and Si Se Puede signs. It was one of those times as a teacher when you sort of stand and look around and wonder, how did I get myself involved in something like this? I used to throw rocks at my 8th grade science teacher, how am I standing here with all these kids, shouting "We Will Make It Better!"

That was the highlight, and it really should have ended there. It didn't of course, and the following many hours of standing while various people our kids did not know and could not hear spoke about issues that probably did not matter. The program was well-intentioned, and many parts of it were excellent, but the whole thing was too long and too slowly moving. It also started late, and we were less than halfway through the scheduled program 2.5 hours after originally leaving our classrooms. The kids were getting restless and it was literally exhausting running crowd control on them.

Here's the thing. This community, the one I teach in, it's not Sal Si Puede anymore. Yes, there are families who move north and south-east, looking for something better, and there are those that stay because they can't, but the depth of despair and awfulness in that name does not reflect the reality of low-income home ownership and the economic revival (and gentrification) that is occurring. At the same time, the community is not Si Se Puede either. It's not. This is not a criticism of the myriad of community activists and empowerment organizations, but rather a commentary on how revolutions and social movements wind down after the highly visible victories have been won. Honoring Cesar Chavez is worthy and noble, but in this community, a place that could be ground zero for reform, it ought to be more than a history lesson. What's next? Define la causa for me. What are we fighting for? Health care? Living wage? Resistance to the gentrification (housing, commercial) that has exploded in the last 15 months?

There is passion here, and some measure of social awareness, and it seems like we should be able to harness that in service of a goal more vibrant than the pursuit of middle-class admittance.


Anonymous Eric said...

When commemorating Chavez, do you ever track day-to-day progress of the Delano-Sacremento march, and explain the significance of a pilgrimage during Lent? Consider:

"Indeed, the Catholic appeal has succeeded with the farmworkers where all other traditions have failed."

About a year ago, I made the mistake of suggesting that despite exemplary union leadership from Bob Chase and Al Shanker, what was really needed was Chavez and Lech Walesa. Not well received by the uniserve lady, which I chalk up to poor background on her part. Oh well...

9:12 PM  
Anonymous Lori Jablonski said...

The most significant piece of writing that has informed the ideals I bring to my teaching of high school government and politics is Earl Shorris’ piece titled “On the Uses of a Liberal Education (As a Weapon in the Hands of the Restless Poor),” from Harper’s (Sept. 97).

The title says it all. The article recounts how Shorris and a few of his well-placed friends established an experimental school for some of the poorest and dispossessed in our society with classes similar to what would be found at some of the leading liberal arts institutions in the nation: a curriculum based on the humanities.

Some excerpts explaining the course to his first class:
“The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political. By political, I mean having activity with other people at every level, from the family to the neighborhood to the broader community.

“Liberally educated people know politics in that sense. They know how to negotiate instead of using force. Liberally educated people know how to use politics to get along. It means that educated people know a more effective method for living in this society.

“Do all successful people know the humanities? Not a chance. But some do. And it helps. Knowing the humanities helps you to live better and enjoy life more. Will the humanities make you rich? Yes. Absolutely. But not in terms of money. In terms of life.

“Rich people learn the humanities in private schools and expensive universities. And that’s one of the ways in which they learn the political life. I think that is the real difference between the haves and the have-nots in this country. If you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people, you must understand politics. The humanities will help.”

Most of my students enter my government classes convinced that it will be awful and irrelevant to their lives. On day one, I tell them —and then constantly teach to the concept—that politics is about how people relate to one another and their community; it is also fundamentally about power. Political people make things happen, they do not merely allow things to happen to them. Government is about the exercise of power..the difference between sitting at the table and being on the menu (which always makes them laugh). “If you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people, you must understand politics”

We then read the entire Shorris piece—and really discuss his premise and its implications. It’s how we ground ourselves, providing the foundation for the learning experience of the entire semester. It gets them every time. (Me too, guaranteed to relieve me of any of those "what the hell am I doing in this game?" doubts. More recently, it has served as an especially useful antidote to some of the ed blogs I've lately sworn off).

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

"On the Uses of a Liberal Education" should be read by all teachers and administrators, as well as anyone who helps frame a school mission statement.

Thanks. It updates longer essays by Alfred North Whitehead and Robert Maynard Hutchins. The latter espouses humanities for Hitler-proofing society .

The essay also evokes Charles Hamilton Houston (Thurgood Marshall's mentor), as well as the formation undergone by Chavez himself.

6:42 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Eric, that's a great idea about tracking the progress. Do you have any insights on resources for that?

Along those same lines, are copies of "On the uses..." available online? In September of 1997 I was spending significantly more time on Maximum Rock'N'Roll than Harpers...

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

The California Department of Ed has a Chavez model curriculum that includes the Delano to Sacramento Itenerary for April 3-10 (page 9) and a cartoon about being "strong enough to march to Sacramento" (page 11).

The Chavez Foundation has a Map of route from Delano to Sacramento (page 26) as well Chavez Day tool-kits for elementary, middle, and high school students.

UC Berkeley has primary sources and video of the march leaving Delano on March 17, 1966. The banner used during the Delano Sacramento march (shown in the video) is the subject of an episode of History Detectives. De Colores, the anthem of the United Farm Workers is an engaging children's song used on pilgrimmages which Pete Seeger explains and performs as an audience sing-along.

Earl Shorris' Harper's, September 1997 article On the Uses of a Liberal Education: II. As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor mentions how "Rich people know politics". While the essay would be helpful for framing school mission and discussing educational philosophy, the CDE Chavez site speaks specifically to how Chavez began his "real education:"

"In 1948, Cesar met people and read books that would change his life forever. He met Father McDonnell who spoke to Cesar about solving the poverty and unjust treatment of the farm worker. He asked Cesar to read books on labor history, St Francis of Assisi, and Luis Fisher's Life of Gandhi. From these books, Cesar learned about the history of unions, nonviolence, sacrificing to help others, and social change, and these ideas reminded him of his family's teachings. Cesar said that it was at this time in his life when his real education began."

5:20 PM  

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