Happy Caesar Chavez Day!
Janelle Meraz Hooper
What was a Chicano? That day, someone in my third grade had called me one, but I’d never heard the word before. What did it mean? My best guess was that it was some kind of Catholic. I tried to think: was there a Chicano bead on my rosary? Which one could it be?
I wondered about this strange new word all the way home. Gramma was in the kitchen pulling a pan of bread pudding out of the oven when I walked through the door. The smell of cinnamon and raisins wafting through the air didn’t deter me from asking her, “Gramma, what’s a Chicano?” She was quick with her answer, “a Chicano is a Mexican who doesn’t work,” she said with disgust in her voice as she handed me a plate with a slice of bread pudding. Her underlying message, one that I picked up on immediately, was: a Chicano is a troublemaker. We don’t have any in this house. Here, everybody works.
This was in the 1950s. I remembered that I’d seen gramma watching the news on her tiny black and white television set. There were many stories about the farm laborers in California marching and demanding better pay and more humane treatment. Gramma would clinch her fists and mutter at the man who seemed to be making all the trouble, “Ain’t you got no shame?”
As the matriarch of a large family, she was fearful about the impact of the marches on us, even if they were in California and we were in Oklahoma. When I was a baby, the Klu Klux Clan had thrown a rock through her window when they were marching to colored town. At the time, she was alone with a houseful of kids because grandpa was off working somewhere. Their torches and robes had given her the fright of her life. Ever since then, our family had kept a low profile in the community; gramma liked to say we kept our nose to the grindstone and didn’t cause any trouble. I knew no one in our house would be marching anywhere. Ever.
So, I wasn’t a Chicano. But what was I? I often wondered. Some called me a Mexican. Some said we were Spanish. Nowadays, I have even more choices: my mother’s side of the family calls me white, like my father. My dad’s side of the family calls me Spanish, like my mother. My government calls me Hispanic or Latino. The forms I fill out give me two choices: White-Hispanic or Hispanic-White. It amuses me that my government can’t make up its mind which comes first.
To me, I’m just me, an American. I like to think I can fit in anywhere, even in a Chicano protest if I should ever find myself in California. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that the man who had my gramma so upset was Caesar Chavez. He became an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group. In 1962, he left CSO and founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Delores Huerta. Soon after that, Chavez and the NFWA led the famous strike of the California grape pickers that lasted five years. Five years! Pretty good for a man who “had no shame”. I was too young to understand what he stood for back then, but I know now. Caesar Chavez Day is March 31st. Maybe I’ll look around and see if there are any festivities remembering what he did for all farm laborers. I ain’t got no shame, either.
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