On a table in the Oval Office, President Joe Biden keeps framed pictures and busts of those who served as inspiration throughout his long political career. One bust features Cesar Chavez, a distant figure from the sixties. He seems disconnected from the present world. However, such a conclusion is a great mistake.
Who was Cesar Chavez, and why is his bust in the Oval Office?
Cesar Chavez was the key labor organizer that led the 1965-1970 Delano (California) grape strike with his United Farm Workers Association (UFWA, later UFW AFL-CIO). He was the strike’s media star and a typical product of left-wing social Catholicism. He represented the union of the political and religious left. Through him, the religious element was very conspicuous in the California grape strike, the much-publicized Huelga (strike).
Chávez was introduced into the world of social Catholicism by one Fr. Donald McDonnell, an agitator-priest who roamed the fields of California in the fifties. Those who knew him recalled how the young “Chávez often met with Father Donald McDonnell, who had a passion for labor history. At night, they would get together to discuss social justice and the Encyclicals of the Popes.”1
In 1952 Cesar Chavez was hired by Fred Ross, Saul Alinsky’s man in California, and worked for ten years with the Community Service Organization (CSO), an outfit of the Industrial Areas Foundation in California. He received thorough training as a professional agitator and became a sort of star pupil of Alinsky.
In 1962 his boss instructed him to organize farmworkers in the San Joaquín Valley. The result was the formation of the United Farm Workers Association (UFWA). Aided by Larry Itliong’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), he sparked the Huelga in 1965. The strike, in itself a local labor dispute, was adroitly turned into a national Causa, a radical cause that galvanized the Christian left, both Catholic and Protestant. Saul Alinsky was, so to speak, an émminence grise behind the strike, which amounted to a textbook example of the type of socialist-Progressivist symbiosis.
The vote to declare the strike was cast in a Catholic church after an invocation by the pastor at a meeting presided over by the portrait of Mexican socialist leader and guerrilla Emiliano Zapata. Despite the flagrant participation of communist agitators—including some who had just arrived from Cuba—a continuous stream of priests, nuns, ministers and rabbis made their “pilgrimage” to the San Joaquín Valley to join the picket lines. Several were arrested.
Religious symbols, like the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, were ubiquitous. “God is beside you on the picket lines!” became one of the picketers’ rallying cries. Daily Masses were offered for the strikers and picketers by activist priests clad in red chasubles bearing the UFW’s black eagle symbol. In their sermons, priests delivered fiery revolutionary rhetoric that compensated for the lack of traditional religious themes. With Bishop Hugh Donohoe of Fresno’s consent, several priests served as “chaplains” to the strikers; among them were Fr. Mark Day, Fr. Eugene Boyle, chairman of the Social Justice Committee of the San Francisco Diocese, and Fr. Keith Kenny of Sacramento.2
Msgr. William Quinn, former director of Chicago Catholic Action, traveled to Delano to lend support, along with Fr. James Vizzard, S.J. The latter billed himself the director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. The National Council of Churches officially endorsed the strike, and its California Migrant Ministry played an important role in it.
Among the principal Protestant spokesmen for the strike was Robert McAfee Brown, who was on his way to becoming one of the most conspicuous American liberation theologians. The Huelga eventually ended after complex negotiations between growers and workers, where Bishop Roger Mahoney of Stockton (later Cardinal-Archbishop of Los Angeles) was the principal mediator.
Emboldened by their participation in the strike, several left-leaning Chicano priests decided to start an association of Hispanic clergy akin to the current that would shortly afterward yield liberation theology. The result was PADRES (Padres Asociados para Derechos Religiosos Educativos y Sociales, Priests Associated for Religious, Educational and Social Rights), which came into being in early 1970 under the leadership of Fr. Ralph Ruiz.
Following the example of PADRES, a group of Hispanic nuns determined to found Las Hermanas (The Sisters), an association of Hispanic activist women aligned with liberation theology. Both organizations would eventually become central players in the so-called new Hispanic Church, perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the liberation theology movement of Latin American inspiration in the United States.3
A 1966 lead editorial of Political Affairs, the theoretical magazine of the Communist Party in the U.S., commented: “Profound changes are unfolding within the Church… In our country, the great rise of democratic struggles during the past several years has brought into the frontlines of battle representatives of all religious faiths… Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis and Protestant ministers… And in the sphere of economic struggles, we may note as an outstanding case in point the militant support being given by Catholic priests to the grape strike in Delano, California.”4
In sum, the California grape strike, on the avowal of the liberation theology spokesmen, unquestionably served to energize the religious left, favor its merger with the political left, and trigger developments shortly afterward to help constitute the liberation theology movement.
The reason why President Biden has a bust of Cesar Chavez in the Oval Office is not leftist nostalgia for past struggles. Indeed, the President now seeks to play a similar role of uniting the political and religious left to carry forth their agenda. The new struggle is not about labor issues, but he will follow Cesar Chavez’s radical footsteps. He will now become a media star as an “observant” Catholic who promotes “social justice” yet pushes abortion, the LGBTQ+ agenda and socialist/ecological schemes toward a new world disorder.
- Stan Steiner, La Raza. The Mexican Americans (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 313. The literature on the Delano strike is abundant. Among other sources are Jacques Levy, Cesar Chavez. Autobiography of La Causa (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975); Ronald B. Taylor, Chavez and the Farm Workers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975); Peter Mathiesen, Sal Si Puedes. Cesar Chávez and the New American Revolution (New York: Random House, 1969). Like so many liberal causes célebres, the Delano strike was to a great extent a propaganda stunt concocted by the media and artificially inflated by the Christian Left and a certain liberal chic. See, for example, Ralph de Toledano, Little Cesar (New York: Anthem Books, 1971).
- Mark Day, Forty Acres. Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), particularly the chapter “The Churches and the Struggle,” pp. 53-60. See also Frank Bergon and Murray Norris, Delano, Another Crisis for the Catholic Church (Fresno, CA: Rudell Publishing Co., 1968); Cletus Healey, S.J., Battle for the Vineyards (New York: Twin Circle, 1969), esp. the chapter “Involvement of the Catholic Church,” pp. 41-46; “The Clergy and the Grapes,” News & Views, Vol. 32, No. 5, May 1969.
- Antonio M. Stevens Arroyo, Prophets Denied Honor. An Anthology on the Hispanic Church in the United States (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1980), pp. 136-137.
- Editorial Comment, “Communism and the Church,” Political Affairs, July 1966.