¡Si Se Puede! (Yes We Can!)

American labor leader and co-founder of the United Farm Workers (formerly known as the National Farm Workers Association) Ces
American labor leader and co-founder of the United Farm Workers (formerly known as the National Farm Workers Association) Cesar Chavez (1927 - 1993) speaks at a rally, Coachella, California, 1977. (Photo by Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)

During the 2008 campaign that propelled Barack Obama into the presidency, then candidate Obama often invoked the phrase "Yes We Can!"

The slogan turned out to be a winning, if unlikely, reminder of the potential electoral superiority of people over money and power. It underscored the innate optimism -- indeed, to use his own description, the sheer "audacity" -- of Obama's claim to the presidency.

Obama's success showed that the little guy could still win in America, despite mounting evidence that our national agenda is being increasingly shaped by a diminishing circle of the world's wealthiest and most powerful insiders.

Still, today most Americans do not realize the source of Obama's winning slogan was the late California labor leader César Chávez, who headed the United Farm Workers union during the 1960s.

Photo courtesy: Dallas Observer

In pursuit of fair wages, decent working conditions and environmental justice, Chávez demonstrated his own brand of audacity by daring to challenge California's most powerful agricultural families (such as the DiGiorgios and the Gallos), as well as its most conservative political leaders (like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan).

In important and historic ways, the little farm labor organizer, who represented society's most hard-working, yet abused workers, actually prevailed. Against overwhelming odds, his fledgling union won unprecedented representational, pay and safety protections for its Latino and Filipino members.

Chávez, an individual of mild stature and manor but gigantic vision and tenacity, is now the subject of an important new movie, just released to coincide with California's official holiday commemorating Chávez. It is an important movie that all Americans should see.

Chávez's real life challenges remain important and significant today; though, sadly, much of the work he began remains strikingly unfinished.

In economic terms, America remains a widely divided society. Farm workers, like restaurant workers and home care providers (among other groups of America's hardest workers) remain largely under-protected by federal minimum wage laws and allied worker safety provisions that exempt them from the basic protections most of us now take for granted.

Many of these workers, though longstanding contributors to the American economy who have made their lives and built their families and communities here in the U.S., are undocumented, and therefore subject to significant limitations relative to their rights and bargaining power in this nation.

It is a travesty that so much is extracted from such workers with so little offered back to them in exchange for their essential contributions to the sustenance of the larger nation and world.

The movie, César Chávez, should remind us not only how far we have come from the worst of unfair labor practices in our nation's past, but also how far we have to go to live up to our national ideals of fairness and equality.

In agricultural fields, urban factories, restaurants and homes all across the nation, immigrant workers are minding America's most basic needs; they are nurturing our hungry bodies and souls with the sustenance we and our loved ones require to carry on.

But rather than being met with understanding and appreciation, America's immigrant workers of recent years have seen growing efforts to limit their welcome, as well as their opportunities in this nation.

In the years to come, experts agree that continuing rapid population growth from largely immigrant-based communities will fuel America's next generation of citizens and workers.

It is penny wise and pound foolish to believe that America can remain a strong and noble nation in the absence of efforts to invest soon and heavily in this population's forward success beyond the fields and economic edges of our increasingly feeble national economy.

To be strong and whole as a nation, we must continue the work that César Chávez began all those years ago -- the unfinished work of fulfilling our social contract, not just for the haves, but even more importantly for society's have-nots.

If the people who do the most and hardest work in our society are not protected or rewarded for their sacrifices, then how can the rest of us claim to live in a just society that comports with our longstanding promises as a nation?

Completing the unfinished business César Chávez began some 50 years ago may seem daunting, even impossible to some. Indeed, our slow and underwhelming progress in recent decades to close our glaring racial income and wealth gaps may seem discouraging to most.

But with a little popular initiative, nothing should be considered beyond our grasp. Even against the backdrop of the seemingly impossible, the democratic impulse that elevates the voice of the people remains, if we all do our part. The improbable is forever as possible as César Chávez told us it could be. Indeed, it is as he reminded us many times: ¡Si Se Puede!


Henry A. J. Ramos is President & CEO of the Oakland, CA-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a nonprofit policy think tank committed to promoting economic security for low income individuals and communities.