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February 2007
All in the Family
The Satya Interview with Christine Chávez

 

Christine Chavez.
Courtesy of Equality California

Few can match the political prowess of progressive extraordinaire, Christine Chávez, the granddaughter of beloved labor and civil rights leader César Chávez (1927-1993). For eight years, Christine served as the political director of the labor union her grandfather co-founded, United Farm Workers, and today she works for the Community College League of California.

Following steadfast in her family’s rich tradition of political activism, Christine is leading the Chávez legacy to success on a wide range of social justice issues today. By her side are her loyal canines, Buddy and Boycott.

Satya contributing writer, Christine Morrissey, joined Christine Chávezfor an afternoon quack about foie gras production, marriage, education equality and, of course, her grandfather’s untold legacy.

You probably get this question on a daily basis, but how did your grandfather influence you and your work today?
It was always very important to be involved and engaged in the farmworker’s struggle. Any time we wanted to spend time with him, we would have to go where he was. Not only did we see him as a farmworker working with other farmworkers, we also saw him working with different disenfranchised groups, whether gay and lesbian groups, showing solidarity with other unions or within the animal rights community. That’s something people completely forget—he was an advocate for animal rights. I think that really influenced us to get involved one way or another. He just wanted us to be involved in something, like pick something and get completely involved in it.

How did you and your grandfather get involved in political campaigns with the LGBT community?
We lived in Morgan Hill, which is in Northern California. We would go down with my grandfather to LGBT marches in San Francisco. Not only did my grandfather march with the LGBT community, but members of the LGBT community were some of the biggest supporters of our grape boycott. A place like San Francisco, where most Gallo wine was sold, was huge for us. So it was a coalition that went both ways.

My involvement with the LGBT community came about several years ago. Senator Carole Migden from San Francisco approached me and said, “Look, we are trying to push through a gay marriage bill.” It was Latinos who weren’t where we needed them to be on that issue. She wanted me to perform ‘commitment ceremonies’ as a way to let the Latino community know that somebody like my grandfather, who they really respected, was a supporter of gay rights. So I did the ceremonies and it took off from there.

Cultural tradition is one justification for using animals for food or entertainment. When people make such remarks within the Latino community, how do you fire back?
It’s not part of our culture. It’s all spineless. Cock fighting and dog fighting is about violence. Do we really want our children to see that? Animals are not put on this earth to fight, for us make a sport out of it. A great majority of Latinos do not choose to use animals in that way. But, there are people who do it.

[It’s the same] with the whole foie gras ban issue. One Latino owner [felt it threatened him] as a Latino business owner, but I don’t think we should give passes to people because of that. They are still mistreating animals.

Tell us more about your recent success to ban foie gras in California.
To be honest, I didn’t know anything about [foie gras production] until Lauren Ornelas [of Viva!USA] came to me. Her parents were very involved with the United Farm Workers in Texas for many years. I was the Political Director of UFW at that time. [When Lauren called], right away, we were supportive of it. We watched the video footage. I can’t believe people would still fight against banning this. But, once you educate people about it, you can sway them just by showing them it is completely inhumane.

But the Latino business owner put in calls to us and went to the Latino caucus and put up his case. Luckily, we were able to push that through and we will continue to do it.

César’s legacy was not just about workers’ rights, it was also about animal rights. It’s something people have forgotten, like his position on the LGBT community. People made my grandfather into this non-controversial angel and that’s just not who he was. He was in your face.

I would love to hear about how you were arrested at the age of four at a grape boycott demonstration.
What I remember is only from what my parents told me. They were sent to work on the grape boycott in Michigan. We were out in front of an AM/PM supermarket. The police came and asked who the ‘picket captain’ was. My mom got a piece of paper that said ‘picket captain’ and tacked it to my sister, who was six or seven at the time. My mom said, “She’s the picket captain and this is the co-captain,” pointing at me. The police asked us to leave or we would be arrested. My parents said stay put, so we all got arrested. We went down to the station. They took my parents away. I remember my sister and I sitting on the desk. We were crying. But, they were very nice and gave us ice cream.

In our family, it’s a rite of passage [to get arrested]. We all call my grandmother and say, “I got arrested!” She’s always like “Yay!” I’ve been arrested a couple of times for the hotel workers campaign, and for the janitors. We will continue to do these good civil disobedience actions.

The community college system is the most accessible and affordable avenue for higher education. Tell me about your current work at the Community College League of California.

Community colleges in California always get the short end of the stick. When you look at the numbers, most people go through the community college system. So it is ridiculous that we would choose to cut from community colleges first, when a majority of people don’t go on to a four-year but come through the community system. A lot of people returning back to school go through the community system as well.

Tell me about your recent political bid for California State Assembly.
I ran for State Assembly, but was not successful. I got a lot of help from the animal community, which I was very honored to get. I do plan to run again.

When you win your candidacy for the State Assembly, what will your key platform be?
Education is big. Also, State Assembly member Mark Leno has introduced the Marriage Equality bill. If for some reason that does not happen, I would like to carry that legislation because it is historic. And of course, animal rights issues. The overpopulation of pets is incredible, especially in our community. I don’t know that we are effectively reaching the Latino community and saying, “Here are the benefits of spaying and neutering your pets.” We need to let them know this is the best way to go.

On a related note, how can people advocating for animals and veganism better support the labor community?
More than anything, it is just so important to continue building coalitions. We have a campaign going on at [Threemile Canyon’s] dairy farm [see Satya October, 2006]. And if you look at the way they are mistreating animals, they are also mistreating workers. That, right there, is a place we can work together on animal and labor issues.

There is such a benefit for us to work together. For instance, the whole issue with foie gras, people said, “Oh, people are going to lose their jobs who work there.” We can work together to put pressure on the state to do worker re-training and get state funding.

When did you go vegetarian?
I am still working towards that. But more than half of our family is vegetarian.

Awesome. Just don’t eat Foster Farms, all right?
No way! They are the worst with their workers.

You are such a dynamic individual—active on so many different fronts. The question remains, do you ever sleep?
Yes, I sleep with my dog, Buddy. Boycott is too wild. He can’t sleep on our bed. He’s just too psycho!

To learn about the work of Christine Chávez, visit www.ActionImpact.org.

 
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