Symbols help to unify diverse groups

The dusty expanse of farmland near Delano, Calif., was known in the late 1960s more for its migrants than its miracles. But the latter indeed occurred when labor organizer Cesar Chavez founded the United Farm Workers in his garage, campaigning from the back of a 1953 station wagon and asking his car-salesman cousin to design the union’s symbol — an angular, black-and-red Aztec eagle.
When it came to unifying an ethnically and linguistically diverse group, Chavez knew the power of symbols. So, it seems, does California state sen. Richard Polanco, who has introduced a bill to designate a paid Cesar Chavez holiday in California.
Such a day could serve as a symbol under which today’s farm workers could rally; it could be a 21st-century Aztec eagle.
But it could do more than agitate “los agriculturos.” It could demonstrate the effectiveness of symbols in current labor movements, a demonstration relevant to activists nationwide, from grape harvesters in the West to graduate students in Minneapolis.
The recent history of UFW, in fact, is not unlike that of the University’s own Graduate Student Organizing Congress. Early this summer the UFW lost a key vote to win a voice among berry pickers in California. The heated fray was symbolically punctuated by the deaths of 13 California farm laborers in a van crash in the early morning of Aug. 9.
Such accidents were exactly what Chavez aimed to end when he founded the UFW. Chavez’s years of toiling in the Central Valley’s endless orchards had painfully familiarized him with exploitative wages and work-site hazards. The name of the Hispanic “barrio” of farm workers in Delano in which Chavez founded his movement says it all: “Sal Si Puedes,” or “Escape if you Can.”
The crash Aug. 9 reinforces the reality that the farm worker life can still be an “Escape if you Can” endeavor. Chavez’s legacy, it seems, crashed along with the van.
It’s clear the movement, as well as many contemporary labor drives, needs an Aztec eagle. As work forces across the country become increasingly multi-ethnic, labor organizers need symbols that can convey messages to all.
Superficially, at least, a Cesar Chavez holiday sounds like a token gesture. What “day” doesn’t?
Today, the dubious belligerence that Columbus Day represents isn’t necessarily denied; the day is largely ignored. Public celebrations of the “discovery” of the New World by our colonialist contemporaries are even less common than protests against the legacy of 1492.
While Columbus Day receives little recognition, other “days” are celebrated, but without regard to history. When I was a child, May Day represented a time for giving away and, more importantly, hoarding Styrofoam cups filled with Snickers bars and suckers. Labor Day meant Valley Fair. The link between these holidays and the labor issues in which they emerged, like the battle for the eight-hour day in the late 1800s, was utterly foreign to me, my friends and, perhaps most importantly, my teachers.
Other “days” seem entirely superfluous. What exactly are we supposed to do on Minnesota’s own “Rolling Stones Day”?
Regardless of their weaknesses, such days can serve as symbols; they communicate to a multi-ethnic public in ways simple speech cannot. And the efficacy of this type of communication is vital to labor movements in all fields.
Indeed, history has shown such symbols, whether they’re holidays, monuments or leaders, to be irreplaceable in labor movements.
When I told my coal-miner uncle early this summer I was going to work at an archaeological excavation at the site of a 1914 Colorado coal-miners’ strike, he immediately recognized the event. The strike was known as the “Ludlow Massacre” because it escalated into a weeklong war between the National Guard and the strikers. It has become a symbol of sorts for the United Mine Workers, a union to which my uncle belongs.
My uncle resides in the desolate reaches of western North Dakota, where slag heaps and strip mines all too often obscure academics. He didn’t learn about Ludlow from history class; the union was, and is, his teacher.
The symbolic value of Ludlow became all the more apparent on a sweltering Saturday in June when hundreds of union members and activists marched to the Ludlow Memorial, a stone sculpture depicting immigrant miners who died in the massacre. The march, complete with speeches, Ludlow memorabilia and music is an annual event. It unifies a multilingual group; nearly half of the musicians performed Spanish-language songs.
Even the original Ludlow strikers had a symbol. More than 20 languages were spoken at the mining camps around the town of Ludlow in the early 20th century, most of which were owned by an absentee landlord from New York named Rockefeller.
The organization of the workers to gain a voice against such a prominent corporate entity was a formidable task. But Mother Jones, the legendary labor leader for whom a political magazine is named today, became an icon for the miners and their families.
Though the miners had more than 20 different words for “collective bargaining,” their aims were entirely clear when Mother Jones led them in marches in the nearby town of Trinidad.
Correspondingly, labor movements lacking symbols often falter. Consider the drive to establish GradSOC. Like the farm workers led by Chavez and the coal miners led by Mother Jones, the potential members, University graduate students, speak a variety of languages.
For nearly two years, I lived in a rooming house of international graduate students, and the GradSOC movement clearly didn’t connect with my housemates. The movement seemed distant to them. Yes, they had heard the rhetoric. But GradSOC seemed entirely bureaucratic and pragmatic. It seemed, well, American.
But symbols can transcend ethnic, lingual and psychological boundaries. A potential symbol like a paid holiday shouldn’t be dismissed as a superficiality. When speaking to a diverse group of English and Spanish, young and old, a day designated for Cesar Chavez would be a perfect way to initiate autumn for the United Farm Workers and an excellent demonstration of the power of symbols in labor movements worldwide.

Eric Larson is a former Daily staff member and University student. He welcomes comments to [email protected].