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The Voting Rights Act is being ‘slowly choked to death,’ warns labor icon Cesar


“I feel like it’s not a competition,” Alejandro Chavez, 43, told CNN. “There’s plenty of oppression to go around.”

Your grandfather is a hero of the labor movement, but he got started with mentors Fred Ross and Father Donald McDonnell organizing voting drives. Tell us about this aspect of your granddad’s legacy.
My grandfather was very committed to his faith. He wrote, “Prayer of the Farm Workers’ Struggle.” The first line starts, “Show me the suffering of the most miserable; So I will know my people’s plight.” The last lines are, “Help us love even those who hate us; So we can change the world.” And that’s just the way he started every meeting, every meal, every wedding, every birthday, every event.
Working with Fred and Father (McDonnell) was where he got these two separate ideas to merge. Actually, a little story I’ll share is that my grandfather was very into democracy — believe it or not (chuckles) — and he went to my grandmother and he told her, “The work that we’re doing is amazing,” but in order to help the farm workers the way they needed to be helped, he had to be in the valley, had to be in the fields. Everyone knows my grandmother told him, “We’ll give it 10 years. We have a union or not, we’ll give it 10 years.”
Cesar Chavez speaks from a Delano, California, union office amid a 1965 grape strike.

So they got the family together and voted on if they were going to do this. My grandfather laid it out in simple terms — not like, “Oh, are we going to move?” — but he said we can’t help people here (in East Los Angeles). You’re talking about your tios (uncles), your tias (aunts), your primos (cousins) suffering in the fields and people you don’t know who are suffering. If we want to help, we have to be willing to give up what we have. Now, did everyone vote the same way? No, but the sentiment of the heart of the family was there, and so I think that was only possible by having the faith that you get in working with a father, a priest, a rabbi, what have you.

Ultimately, his thing was that you had faith. What’s having more faith than organizing and registering voters and taking what you believe to the people? What do you need more than 100% faith that it can be done? Most people don’t realize it doesn’t happen without those two separately coming into his life and then him finding a point where they meet. In Fred Ross’ writings, there’s a note on when he met my grandfather. It says, “I think I’ve found the guy I’ve been looking for.”

What are some of the obstacles to voting unique to Latinos and Hispanics today?

IDs are a great one. My legal name on paper is Alejandro Cesario Reyes Chavez, four solid names. My birth certificate didn’t have room for two middle names so they had to hyphenate it. Well, over the years, I’ve got it finally corrected, but it used to be, “Am I Alejandro Chavez? Am I Alejandro Cesario? Am I Alejandro Cesario Chavez? Which one’s the last name?” and so voting was always a challenge. I’d have to vote provisional and then go to the county. That’s a big thing, I think, happens a lot in Latino communities. We give four names, sometimes five.

Two, is people have different forms of ID. Some people don’t drive, so a driver’s license isn’t it. Depending on where you are, you may not drive. If you look in New York, for example, who drives in New York City? Imagine being an immigrant in that town, trying to get an ID to just vote when you don’t drive.

Then the vote by mail is huge because when you’re in the field, you’re out on a job site, it’s not easy to ask your foreperson, “Hey can I go vote?” Yes, by law, you are granted it, but we’re talking about the realities of employers. It’s hard to vote at the polls when you go to work at 4 a.m. and then you get off at 5:30 p.m. and the polls close at 6.

August 28 is the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech. King once wrote your father, praising…



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