Grade Level: 9-12
Student: Jenny Wang
Teacher: Diane Shires
Chapter: TA of South Pasadena
Cesar Chavez: Man of the Past, Present, and Future
Cesar Chavez was a father, a husband, and a son, but most importantly, Cesar Chavez was, and still is, a hero. He became the voice of millions, one man who embodied the frustrations and anger Latino American immigrant workers had towards the injustices they faced in both the workplace and society. Because Chavez addressed and worked on an extensive range of issues during his activism, pieces of his legacy can be found embedded within each person and within the framework of society as a whole today, as could during the years Chavez most actively campaigned for change. While most people correlate his name to the United Farm Workers organization and specifically to his work as a civil rights activist, Chavez’s greatest, yet subtle, gift to the world today is his legacy regarding the power of education.
Born into a Mexican-American family with six children, Cesar Chavez spent a significant portion of his childhood working with his family in the fields, harvesting a variety of crops to help with his family’s financial needs. Because of the backbreaking and time-consuming nature of the fieldwork, Chavez had little to no time for school. In fact, eighth grade was the last year he ever received formal education. Chavez believed that the education he received would not benefit him in any way for a farming lifestyle, which he knew was his fate, so he saw no need to continue obtaining an education. Subsequently after his completion of school, his father was involved in an accident and could no longer work in the fields, which meant Chavez’s family would lose their primary breadwinner. Unwilling to let his mother take up fieldwork, Chavez dropped out from school to become a full-time migrant farm worker.
Chavez saw that poverty among migrant workers was a never-ending cycle, and consequently understood the dire need for the workers to escape said cycle. He relinquished his education as his personal sacrifice to his family, helping them financially and ensuring his siblings would be able to escape the same fate he fared. He saw that with an education, children would have the qualifications necessary to apply to higher-paying and less menial jobs and thus be able to keep their children in school, all together avoiding the backbreaking labor of fieldwork. In fact, his hope for and faith in education extended much farther beyond those single moments. Until death, Chavez had lived by his belief that “the end of all education should surely be service to others.” Not only did he hope that with an education, people could escape poverty, but also that one day, the same people would use their education to teach others, reciprocating the fortunes they had benefited from.
As a student, education dominates my life, seeing how I essentially spend my entire day either at school, participating in a school-related activity, or doing homework. However, never before had I thought about Chavez’s key ideas – the power of education and the importance of sharing my knowledge to others – until I volunteered at the Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) program. An afterschool program centered in a community known for its high crime rates, low academic resources and low financial status, HOLA is dedicated to empowering children to “develop their potential, pursue their education and strengthen their communities” (www.heartofla.org). A majority of the children that come to HOLA come from backgrounds in which their parents received little to no formal education, and consequently receive little assistance in their scholarly needs. HOLA and its volunteers work together to provide those children with the support, resources, and experiences they need to succeed that are unavailable to them at home. With the tutoring program, I spent the majority of my time working with a vivacious first-grader named Gabriella. Upon learning that she lived in a van with her parents, little brother, and aunt, I was utterly perplexed – how could someone so unfortunate possess so much optimism and yet no contempt for her life? As we spent more and more time together completing homework, reading, and simply talking, we grew closer, each benefiting from the other. While she gained a role model and an older sister from me, I gained and developed a new mindset regarding the essence and capabilities of education thanks to her. It was through Gabriella’s unbridled enthusiasm and determination to learn that I truly understood the power and importance of education: she so fervently embraced the tools HOLA provided because she saw that education was the key to helping her ensure a better life for both her family and herself.
Prior to my experiences with HOLA, I had perceived education as mere triviality – something I had to receive year after year until I simply didn’t need to anymore – but afterwards, I realized that education meant much more. For children like Gabriella, education meant getting out of the cycle of being uneducated they were trapped in, being able to pursue their dreams that otherwise would be impossible, and helping them get a job so they could ultimately better their lives. I saw that good education was a gift, and a door to endless opportunities. Most importantly, I realized it was my duty to serve others – that knowledge I kept to myself was knowledge wasted. I saw an abundance of children at HOLA who would benefit greatly from what I have to offer as a person who has benefitted from a resourceful and encouragement-filled educational and social environment. By being given the tools and resources and directed along a carefully planned path to help with college admission, children at HOLA are essentially given the opportunity to pursue their dreams, free from inhibition, and hopefully to one day pass their knowledge, academic and life-related, to others, as I did to them.
Too often do we remember people for simply what they accomplished during their lifetime. As with Cesar Chavez, much of what he should be remembered by is the legacy he left behind after his death. His accomplishments as a civil activist have produced fundamental values and concepts key to society today. We extracted the important underlying values of teamwork, cooperation, and collaboration from his boycott of grapes and lettuce. We extracted the importance of determination from all his battles to be heard. But perhaps the most influential piece of knowledge we take from Chavez is that education is the key to being free – free from ignorance, injustice, and oppression. Free to do whatever one wants. Because as Chavez himself said, “You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read.”