On April 23 in Kresge Auditorium, Stanford witnessed the fourteenth annual commemorative celebration “¡Viva César Chávez!” co-sponsored by El Centro Chicano, MEChA, the ASSU Speakers Bureau, VPSA, and the César Chávez Commemorative Committee.
The auditorium’s walls were festooned with the red-white-and-black flags of the United Farm Workers of America. Over the course of the evening, the flags gradually fell off their hangings, but vigilant student activists were quick to rise up and restore them to the walls.
As the auditorium filled with students and community members, the event’s Master of Ceremonies, Yvonne Maldonado, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, focused the audience’s thoughts on César Chávez and his continued significance. She then turned the podium over to senior Francisco Preciado, the president of MEChA, who first argued that César Chávez’s struggles are not over and then inveighed against U.S. human rights abuses against farm workers. He also talked at length about the living wage campaign on campus, noting that his father and grandfather worked at Stanford. On the Stanford Challenge, he said he would “challenge Stanford” to be sweat-free and join the Workers’ Rights Consortium and the Designated Suppliers Forum. A clipboard circulated, soliciting signatures in support of the cause. Preciado quoted César Chávez, saying, “Once social change has started, it cannot be reversed.” Elaborating and seeking to extend that principle to Stanford, he added, “Social change has begun, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s our job to continue the fight.” The living wage campaign, it became clear, was merely the first in a series of social protests.
The event moved on to the presentation of the winners of the César Chávez Art and Essay Contest. Maria Guadalupe Garcia, a sophomore at Los Banos High School, won first place with her “Ability to Achieve.” Runners up included senior Yesenia Rodríguez of East Palo Alto Stanford Academy (“César Chávez Commemoration”) and sophomore Anthony Cortez of Los Banos High School (“My Inspiration”).
Spoken Word took the stage next, delighting the audience with poetry of an appropriately revolutionary tone. The first poem centered on hypocrisy, the second on manifestations of oppression—overflowing with tropes of oppression rhetoric—and the third was modeled on the form of a letter, “Declaration of My Freedom,” focusing on oppression and the history of slavery.
Following Spoken Word’s performance, Albert M. Camarillo, the Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service and founder and director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, introduced the evening’s keynote speaker, the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Describing the Reverend Jackson as “an amazing orator,” Professor Camarillo declared him to be “the most important American alive today on issues of justice, civil rights, empowerment of the poor, human rights, and public justice and empowerment around the world.” Then, before inviting Reverend Jackson up to the podium, he exhorted the audience to get to its feet and begin clapping. With applause all around, Reverend Jackson took the stage.
He began by asking everyone to stand once again and join in a moment of silence for those dead and grieving over the Virginia Tech shooting. After everyone was once again seated, he proceeded to catalogue those dead in Iraq as well as those dead in America from gun violence. Saying it’s our generation’s fight to end the war in Iraq and to end sweatshops, Jackson added that those already “fighting” in these two causes deserve our praise.
Moving on to Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans, Jackson spoke about the language used by the media to describe the people in the ruined city. The media, he said, “don’t see the fullness of their humanity,” asking why the terms “refugees” and “victims” took the place of citizens and survivors. “The families of the 9/11 victims got one to two million dollars. In Katrina,” he said, “no one saw a dime.” Arguing that there are “two sets of rules,” Reverend Jackson maintained, “The struggle is not over.”
On the front of the podium was a picture of a young Jesse Jackson talking to César Chávez while he fasted. “I fast to get the attention of the oppressor,” Jackson intoned. “I fast to purify my soul.”
“Guest workers,” Jackson said, constituted a method of using one group of impoverished people against another. Shifting to the subject of the United States’ language policy, he held that “English-only is a glorification of ignorance and retardation.” Making another point, Jackson described the demographics of the world and its linguistic and economic condition—that most of it is “brown, poor, female, and doesn’t speak English.” Noted Jackson, “Decadence in America is as old as the culture…we must all fight the decadence. We must fight the public discourse and its toxicity.”
Bringing the roundabout talk back to Stanford, Jackson said, “When you fight the sweatshop fight here, you’re doing what King-Chávez was doing. You’re fighting for those who need uplifting.” Jackson talked at length about “the future of the ‘King-Chávez coalition’” and the problem of disenfranchisement. He argued that Bill Clinton won the presidency with the help of “our coalition,” and stated “the Republicans in 2000 and 2004 decided they couldn’t win with registration so they went with nullification.”
In an exhortation to the Stanford students in the audience, Jackson implored, “Don’t swim in blessings and drown in complaints.”
He also advised the audience, “Don’t assume all whites are racist on the basis of the Rodney King beating,” noting that George Holliday, the videographer who got it on tape, was white. He gave similar examples of African-Americans as well.
On the topic of character, Reverend Jackson said, “Beyond color, which you can’t decide, you can decide to have character. Suffering builds character and character builds faith and in the end faith will not disappoint.” Elaborating on his definition, Jackson said, “Beyond culture and color is character, selfless sacrifice character.”
The final portion of his speech revolved around the question, “What do you owe Dr. King and César Chávez?” “First,” he said, “we must remember them. Learn about them and remember them. The power of unearned suffering, of authenticity, transformative power, that mattered!” He then reminded the audience of the story of the Good Samaritan.
“Second,” he said,” be grateful. God never missed a day since He stopped making days.”
“Lastly,” he finished, “do well. When you develop selfless values, values of selflessness and charity, do well. Be a public doctor for public health and not private wealth.”
Concluding his speech, Reverend Jackson intoned, “When you remember them, are grateful, and do well, you’ll have made King and Chávez rejoice.”
During the question and answer session that followed, Reverend Jackson observed, “Katrina is a metaphor for neglected urban America.” On Chávez and King, he added, “We love our martyrs once they are martyrs, particularly when they are dead. We romanticize. Everybody loves them the day after.”
Returning to the subject of student activism, he said, “Leadership comes from you. Remember the student sit-in movement. The movement for justice, to end sweatshops, starts with you. The spirit of Dr. King and César Chávez is in this room tonight. I see it in the anti-sweatshop movement and the anti-Iraq war movement.”
Another question concerned Jimmy Carter’s book on Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. Jackson responded by saying, “People overreacted to President Carter. He’s not choosing sides; he’s choosing to reconcile sides. Israel has a right to be secure, as do the Palestinians. Jimmy Carter is not antisemitic, he is pro-peace. It’s a tough role to play.”
Questioned about his opinion of the presidential aspirations of Senator Barack Obama, Reverend Jackson said, “His ascendancy is very significant. Hillary Clinton is perhaps even more formidable. Edwards may be the sleeper. Hillary has relationships as her advantage. Barack is untested. He’s my neighbor, I’d vote for him. I want to hear about policy, not fundraising. Who makes sense? That’s what takes it to the next level.”