What Latin American Catholics Can Teach the American Left

In 1965, Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez began the United Farm Workers union. Both were Mexican Americans advocating the rights and protections of laborers in Southern California. Both had grown up migrant workers themselves. Both were progressive. And both were Catholic. These days, the prototypical progressive organizer doesn't bring to mind a Chavez or a Huerta or an Archbishop Romero, even though their legacy is truer to historic form. If the left is to truly stand a chance against threats like Donald Trump, it needs to reclaim the moral authority embodied in so much of its history.

What remains so ultimately powerful about the Latin American Catholic organizing movement is its emphasis on areas of moral clarity. Nonviolent action, like that of Huerta and Chavez, was greatly informed by the nonviolent demonstration work of Martin Luther King and Ghandi: neither of them Latin American Catholics, but both men of faith. Historically, in fact, the most powerful organizing movements in history were not defined by monochromatic agreement on small issues, but deep faithful adherence to big ones. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the suffrage movement all had a transcendental element to them, which lent them durability and cohesion.

Though the progressive movement has enormous political breadth, an overwhelming focus on individual alignment is hurting the left. Dolores Huerta is both deeply Catholic and deeply pro choice. "It is not for the government", she has said acidly, "to say how many children women can have." While a great many Catholics have criticized Dolores's position, a difference of opinion has not ostracized her from the Catholic community. Faith-based organizing tends, in this way, towards inclusion: aligning uniformly will never be possible for any political movement. An attitude of volatility is keeping the left fractured as pundits define which issues should and should not be primary to the political good. "We cannot let people drive wedges between us", Huerta has said, "because there's only one human race."

The communal morality of Latin American Catholics may explain, for instance, why they are so radically more responsive to Pope Francis's message around climate change. This family and faith centered orientation seems to explain why Latin American organizers are less likely to be political science graduates, and more likely to be working class people most vulnerable to the forces they stand against. Chavez and Huerta, in this vein, used language that was emotionally inclusive but morally strong: "In some cases non-violence requires more militancy than violence", Chavez is quoted as saying; "The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people."

When Huerta and Chavez began organizing, they were Catholic laborers with deep amounts of concern for the working conditions of their friends and family. Since then, they've procured healthcare, required rest periods, and a myriad of legal protections for the communities they serve. Their victory was the fruit of putting aside tribalistic litmus tests on individual issues, and embracing a moral high ground centered around the common good. In the words of Chavez himself, "people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength." The dignity he refers comes directly from human connectedness and spiritual consciousness. If the progressive left is to regain the moral high ground, it must become what it's typically been: a place for family, connection, and faith.