Cesar Chavez’s birthday: Remembering social justice taught with grape boycotts

Amid all the big, dramatic news dominating the world today, observing Cesar Chavez’s birthday March 31 is a reminder of the power of simple, grass-roots organizing and years of persistent plugging away for justice.

We live in times when a government can be overthrown in a matter of weeks by a Twitter-organized popular uprising. It’s a little hard to imagine the decades-long dedication with which Chavez and his followers worked to change the mistreatment, physical danger and scandalously low wages endured by farm workers in this country.

Though conditions are still far from ideal in U.S. agriculture, there’s been immense improvement. And the fight continues to be fought with the tactics developed by Chavez and what is now known as the United Farm Workers Union. For instance, grass roots-organized boycotts were responsible for the recent victories by Florida tomato workers in getting higher price guarantees from major restaurant companies, bringing up wages a crucial few cents per bushel.

The grape and lettuce boycotts of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s led by Chavez were a core part of many Catholics’ introduction to the concept of practicing everyday social justice through their grocery purchases. Today such consciousness is played out in parishes around the country that ban plastic water bottles or that use and sell products like Catholic Relief Services’ Fair Trade coffee and chocolate.

Photo of Cesar Chavez from exhibit at Los Angeles cathedral, by Victor Aleman.

Marking this year’s birthday, a proclamation of Cesar Chavez Day from the White House makes note of his “selfless and fearless leadership.” A photo exhibit at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles focuses on “Cesar Chavez as a champion of human dignity and justice.”

Chavez, who had his share of struggles with convincing some church leaders that his quest for justice was rooted in Gospel values, was always quietly public about his Catholicism. As he traveled around the country, he regularly stayed in parish halls and vacant convents; Mass with parishioners was a must. Shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe were a regular sight at the farm workers’ activities. Chavez broke his hunger strikes with the Eucharist.

This prayer, attributed to Chavez, was a feature of this week’s communique from the National Catholic Rural Life Conference:

Show me the suffering of the most miserable, so I may know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray for others, for  you are present in every person.

Help me to take responsibility for my own life, so that I can be free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others, for in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience, so that I can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration, so that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow, so that we will never tire of the struggle.

Still time to submit songs for World Youth Day

Composers — or just enthusiastic young people — still have time to submit a song to be used at World Youth Day in Madrid Aug. 16-21.

By going to the World Youth Day site or clicking on a special site, musicians can enter a song of up to three minutes.

World Youth Day officials started the contest when they discovered the official hymn was not very popular.

Obama visits tomb of Archbishop Romero

SAN SALVADOR — U.S. President Barack Obama visited the tomb of slain Archbishop Oscar A. Romero when he visited the city’s metropolitan cathedral March 22. The archbishop, whose sainthood cause is being considered by the Vatican, was gunned down while celebrating Mass March 24, 1980, shortly after a radio broadcast in which he urged Salvadoran soldiers to stop turning their weapons on civilians in El Salvador’s civil war.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes and San Salvador Archbishop Jose Escobar Alas accompanied Obama to the cathedral crypt, where Archbishop Romero is buried.

Here are excerpts from the White House pool report, which refers to the president as POTUS — President Of The United States.

POTUS, having walked down opposite stairs into the crypt, looked at the tomb and a kneeler used by Pope John Paul II when he visited Salvador.

The tomb looks to be a bronze image of the dead Romero lying in repose, with statues of grieving nun-like women at each corner.

POTUS closed his eyes, briefly bowed his head and then turned back, looking subdued.

President Funes then gave him a picture looking like an allegory of (Archbishop) Romero’s life.

POTUS then lit candles as President Funes and the archbishop looked on before lighting candles themselves. Again, no audible comments from POTUS. Pool was ushered out of the cathedral at 6:50 and run past a few soldiers standing guard in full gear, toting assault rifles.

Pope offers prayers for crisis in Libya

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI said the “worrying news from Libya” in the past few days caused him “deep trepidation and fear,” and he kept the North African country’s people in his prayers during his Lenten retreat March 13-19.

As U.S., British and French military launched strikes against Libya’s air defenses yesterday and again this morning in a U.N.-approved effort to protect pro-democracy protesters from retaliation by Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the pope said he was following the events with great concern and praying for those involved in “the dramatic situation.”

Speaking to pilgrims gathered today in St. Peter’s Square for the Sunday recitation of the Angelus, the pope said, “I address a pressing appeal to those who have political and military responsibilities” so they would take steps to ensure the safety of defenseless citizens and provide emergency assistance to those in need.

He also prayed that “peace and concord would soon reign over Libya and the entire north African region.”

Haiti’s vote for president: It’s a civic duty no matter the candidates

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — When Haitians return to the polls for the final runoff for president Sunday, they will be choosing between two candidates they say don’t excite them very much.

A woman walks past a poster reminding people to vote. (CNS/Bob Roller)

It is the first election since the January 2010 earthquake devastated about 20 percent of the country, causing more than 300,000 deaths and another 300,000 injuries while leaving 1.5 million people homeless and catastrophic destruction that has barely begun to be cleared.

The candidates include former first lady Mirlande Manigat and festival singer Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly. They were deemed the top two finishers in the first round of voting Nov. 28 that was followed by a controversial period over who would be in the runoff. The issue led to riots and a two-month delay in the runoff.

Still, almost to a person, Haitians told Catholic News Service they will vote no matter whose names are on the ballot.

“Even when you’re skeptical you need to do your civic duty,” Carrefour businessman Laguerre Fitzgerald, 42, said before allowing himself the opportunity to criticize outgoing President Rene Preval for his lack of concrete action during his five-year term.

“I am Haitian, I will be voting,” said Lerisse Rezami, 59, as he prepared to sift crushed rubble from the quake for use in cement in Carrefour. “I am looking forward to a better future for this country. That’s why I’m voting.”

In Terrain Toto, 12 miles east of the congested capital, Auguste Marie-Sonie, 26, laughed when asked about the election, then became serious.

“The problem is most candidates, you pick them and once they get into power they forget their pledges,” she said. “I have some hope that whoever is elected will do something for the country.”

With his shaved head, Martelly calls himself “Tet Kale” (“The Bald”) on thousands of pink fliers posted everywhere in the country. He has consistently led in polls and is regarded as the favorite among working class and unemployed Haitians largely because he uses populist language to which they can relate. Critics say he has offered few specifics, however.

On the other hand, Manigat’s connections to Haiti’s business and professional communities and her role as first lady seem to place her in a position to move quickly to implement government reforms and to jump-start the reconstruction effort, supporters say. Her critics contend she is part of Haiti’s autocratic past and a part of the political system that has produced little for anyone but those at the top.

Complicating the picture is former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was whisked from office in a 2004 coup. Some believe the former populist leader, who left the Catholic priesthood to pursue political office, was forced out by Western governments who wanted someone more to their liking. He was succeeded by Preval.

Aristide may return from exile in South Africa to vote in Sunday’s election, said one source who claimed a close friendship with him.

There’s no word from the Aristide camp about his intentions other than that he wants to return to his homeland.

Despite what the candidates say, most Haitians wonder how much either candidate can do when faced with the enormous task of rebuilding what was lost in the earthquake, let alone move the country forward.

Matthew Accene, another earthquake victim from Port-au-Prince who recently was relocated to a transitional shelter in Terrain Toto, summed up the choice this way: “It’s like seeing two oranges in the market and both of them are rotten. You buy them anyway and hope one of them will be good.”

Get bald for kids on St. Paddy’s Day

What are your plans for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day? If you are like most North Americans, you’ll be accessorizing yourself out in green, putting on silly hats, visiting your neighborhood pub, eating someone’s idea of Irish food — usually bad — drinking beer that might be green (God only knows who came up with that), and anticipating calling into work the next morning with a hangover.

A cool organization has another idea. How about getting your head shaved?

Yesterday’s Chronicle of Philanthropy notes that a new twist on an old feast day gets volunteers to get their heads shaved to raise money to fight cancer in children. This St. Patrick’s Day, almost 28,000 men and women have signed up get shorn and pony up a donation for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. So far this year, the volunteer-driven foundation has raised some $10 million that it funnels to researchers looking to find cures for the pediatric cancer, the leading disease-caused death of children in the United States. A number of Catholic schools across the country have signed on and are preparing to get clipped.

The Chronicle reports that over the years, St. Baldrick’s has raised over $100 million for childhood cancer research. That’s a lot of hair and a lot of hope.

When you think about it, what better way to show solidarity with a child who may have lost his or her hair through cancer treatments than losing your hair too? You’ll save a bundle on hair care products and won’t have to worry about that green leprechaun’s hat wrecking your hairdo.

Hustle and bustle of Port-au-Prince brings sense of normalcy to Haitian capital

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Despite huge mounds of rubble where buildings once stood and an estimated 800,000 people living in overcrowded and squalid tent settlements in the most devastated parts of the city, a sense of normalcy has returned to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

A woman buys produce at a market in Port-au-Prince March 11. (CNS/Bob Roller)

The evidence?

Traffic galore, streets crowded with pedestrians going about their business and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of merchants who have set up curbside shops in an effort to eke out a living.

In the weeks after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, the congestion on the streets was seen as a good sign. It meant petroleum products were starting to get through and people were at least getting back to their routines. But one thing that was missing was the merchants.

Only a few had set up their stands selling clothing, street food, fresh fruit and vegetables, drinks, cosmetics and toiletries within a month of the magnitude 7 quake. These days, merchants seem to have taken over the every major thoroughfare as well as many side streets — some with approval of the city government and some not.

With the capacity of the Port-au-Prince government diminished by the earthquake because offices were destroyed and workers killed, there is limited ability to make sure that anyone who goes into business at least gets a cursory review. Nowadays if someone wants to make a few Haitian gourds, they simply set up a street-side shop and hope enough customers stop by to pick up their daily necessities.

To a certain extent it means the entrepreneurial spirit is strong. It means people have overcome the shock that washed over this overwhelmingly poor nation 14 months ago.

At the same time, with so many merchants trying to scratch out even a meager living, one wonders if the local economy can support so many businesses. There was only so much money in the Haitian economy before the quake. With unemployment still languishing perhaps as high as 80 percent, there’s hardly enough money percolating through the economy for all the merchants to survive.

But such is the Haitian way. It’s a society built on hope that a better day is ahead and that Haitians are willing to try anything to bring it closer.