A farm worker hero. A non-violent Latino civil rights activist. An avid Catholic.” Of the descriptors most frequently used to describe Cesar Chávez, rarely– perhaps the most important part of his coalition building– is one of the parts of his fight for social justice acknowledged: Cesar was a dedicated ally to the LGBTQ community.
His support began on a personal level in the 1940s when Chávez and his wife, Helen Chávez, asked a close friend and lesbian farm worker to baptize their son. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers alongside Cesar, described this in 2006 during a speech for the Human Rights Campaign:
“Yes, there were farm workers who were gay and lesbian. Cesar Chávez had a ‘comadre’ [close friend], who was a lesbian and baptized his oldest son, Fernando. She owned a little bar called People’s. For the strikers, that was our hangout because there was so much discrimination against us that People’s was a place that we all went to because there was never any hostility. If fact, it was part of our movement.”
For the continual conflict that religion commonly poses for LGBTQ justice, it is important to note that for the Chávez family, they did not separate their commitment to Catholicism with accepting LGBTQ farm workers. Chávez saw the reflection of the oppression of LGBTQ people with the injustices that were– and still are, may I add– committed against farm workers and the discrimination of Mexican Americans, and he saw the value of doing cross-movement organizing. In the 1970s, a time when being in support of the LGBTQ movement was largely unpopular, Chávez ws one of the first civil rights activists to publicly support the movement. This is best described by Helen, his wife, in a speech in 2008:
“My husband spent his life fighting for dignity for all people. César was one of the first civil rights leaders to speak out for gays and lesbians, because he understood that you can’t demand equality for your own people while tolerating discrimination against anyone else.
“As a champion for justice, he would have been glad to know that California finally allows gay and lesbian couples to marry, because that brings us one step closer to his vision for communities where everyone is accepted and respected. For 45 years, I stood with Cèsar for what is right. Today I celebrate his memory as I see so many newly married gay and lesbian couples celebrate their marriages. We must welcome them if we are all to have equality.”
Chávez worked with Harvey Milk, the U.S.’ first openly gay politician. Through this relationship, Milk strongly supported the farm worker movement, and Chávez marched and was outspoken on LGBTQ inequalities. Both men marched together and introduced many of their followers to both movements– Milk rallied much support for the grape boycott from the LGBTQ community, and Chávez invited farm workers to join him in LGBTQ marches. Nicole Murray Ramirez, a Latino and gay activist for more than 45 years and a national board member of the Harvey Milk Foundation, recollected his memories of seeing Milk and Chavez working together in an article for LGBT Weekly:
The first major civil rights leader to speak out for our community was Latino icon, Cesar Chavez. You see Harvey Milk and Cesar Chavez established a friendship and relationship with the then early “Coors Beer” and “Grape” boycotts which they of course supported. Having worked and known both Milk and Chavez I know firsthand that they both were very supportive of each other. Chavez supported Milk’s supervisor campaign and came out against anti-gay state proposition “No. 8” and Milk strongly supported the farmworkers and Latino community.
Ramirez would later invite Chávez to speak at an LGBTQ march in Washington, D.C., of which he says Chavez “did not hesitate a moment” to agree to participate in. Chavez described to Ramirez that the march was the largest crowd he had ever spoken to, according to his article in LGBT Weekly. That was the second event Chavez spoke out on LGBTQ rights, the first being at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, as reported by Equality California.
Larua M. Esquivel, described as an LGBTQ “force of coalition, bridging together resources from politics to philanthropy to legislation” by Color Magazine USA and who fought for Latinos to be heard by “white gays”, as she described in the video below, marched with Chávez during the march in Washington in 1987. She was wearing a UFW sweatshirt and recalls a conversation with Chávez on struggling with living between being Latin@ and being LGBTQ:
UFW contingents often showed their support for equality by marching in gay rights parades alongside their promotion for safe working conditions and the right to organize. Esquivel discussed the challenge of identity and activism with Chavez, asking why it felt like she “had to pick between being gay or being Latino,” and the lack of a home in either community for her full self.”He held my hand and said, ‘You have a right to be heard and be seen as both Latino and as gay people.'”
Perhaps the value of Chávez’ cross movement organizing was best described by Marc Grossman, the Chávez Foundation’s communication director and César Chávez’s longtime spokesman and personal aide, as reported by Equality California:
“César didn’t care about what was unpopular. He came out strong against the Vietnam War, something most other labor organizations wouldn’t do. He believed you couldn’t lead by following the crowd.”
Grossman shares the anecdote of a young aide who had left Chávez to move to San Francisco, and who later came out. Chávez came to San Francisco for a labor rally and went to a gay pride parade. The aide recognized him and said, “I’m surprised to see you here,” and Chávez replied, baffled, “Why would you be surprised?”
“He would say, ‘How can you be for equal rights for your own people if you’re not for equal rights for other people?’”
A farm worker hero. A non-violent Latino civil rights activist. An avid Catholic. Next time you describe Chávez, include “LGBTQ rights ally and out and proud activist.”
Video: Christine Chávez, Grandaughter of César Chávez, Speaks on LGBT Rights