¡Si Se Puede!
May 1972, a decade after Cesar Chavez founded the union, the
Legislature in his native state of Arizona pushed through a bill
sponsored by agribusiness denying farm workers the right to strike and
boycott during harvest seasons, and effectively making it impossible for
them to organize.
The United Farm Workers asked to meet with
Republican Governor Jack Williams, to appeal for him to veto the
legislation. Instead, the governor ordered state troopers to bring him
the bill and he signed it within an hour after passage. In response to a
protest by farm workers, the governor remarked, “As far as I’m concerned, those people don’t exist.”
news of the law’s enactment reached him, Cesar returned to Arizona and
began a 25-day water-only fast. The fast quickly took a physical toll.
After a few days Cesar was bedridden. Resting on his back in a small
room, with UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta by his side, Cesar was briefed
by a group of local Latino labor and political leaders about political
realities in the state.
The leaders offered a refrain Cesar heard
many times: The grower lobby that dominated state politics, the
Legislature and governor was so powerful, these Latino leaders declared,
it couldn’t be beaten. Cesar silently listened while they explained why
the fast and efforts by farm workers would be fruitless.
“No, no se puede!” (“No, no it can’t be done”), they kept repeating in Spanish. Then Cesar lifted his head slightly from the pillow and whispered, “Si, si se puede!” (“Yes, yes, it can be done”).
Dolores Huerta immediately picked up the call and made the slogan the rallying cry for the farm workers’ campaign in Arizona.
Cesar’s 1972 fast, during which he became so weak he was hospitalized,
the UFW mobilized thousands of labor, religious and community activists,
and collected enough signatures to force an election to recall Governor
Williams. The governor escaped the vote with a partisan ruling by the
state attorney general.
At a Mass ending the fast, Cesar’s said in a statement that was read for him, “The
greatest tragedy is not to live and die, as we all must. The greatest
tragedy is for a person to live and die without knowing the satisfaction
of giving life for others.”
The state’s punitive anti-farm
worker law is still on the books. Yet Cesar Chavez’s historic fast, the
UFW’s activism and the message of Si Se Puede! have fundamentally
transformed Arizona to the present day.
Cesar has passed, but his
legacy of self-sacrifice—and the affirmation ¡Si Se Puede!—is alive
wherever farm workers organize and wherever people anywhere stand up
nonviolently for their rights.