3. From Farmworker to Cultural Icon: Cesar Chavez’s Rhetorical Crusade
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83 3 From Farmworker to Cultural Icon: Cesar Chavez’s Rhetorical Crusade Richard J. Jensen and John C. Hammerback D uring the 1960s and early 1970s Chicano leaders organized protest movements that openly challenged the Anglo power structure and demanded significant improvements in the lives of Mexican Americans and other poor people. The Chicano movement was composed of several major organizations, each of which was led by a charismatic individual who created a powerful rhetoric that argued for dramatic changes in American society. In their book The Chicanos, Meier and Rivera describe the Chicano leaders: Up to the early 1960s organizational development in the Mexican-American community was overwhelmingly local in activity and membership. Little had been done to form national organizations, and few leaders with national exposure had appeared; in recent years, however, activist spokesmen of prominence have arisen. These new leaders range from fiery militant to moderate advocates of nonviolence. Four of these young leaders (Cesar Chavez,1 José Angel Gutiérrez ,2 Reies Lopez Tijerina,3 and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales)4 had considerable impact, especially since 1965.5 Meier and Rivera referred to those individuals as “The Four Horsemen” because of their prominence and effectiveness as leaders. SOCIAL CONTROVERSY AND PUBLIC ADDRESS IN THE 1960S AND EARLY 1970S 84 Roots of the Movement Much of the Chicano leaders’ rhetoric described the negative conditions that Mexican Americans faced in their daily lives. Hammerback, Jensen, and Gutierrez detail those conditions: There was widespread discrimination and prejudice against them in jobs, salaries, housing, education, voting rights, social organizations, civil rights, and the legal system. Evidence in the field of education, for example, indicated that Mexican Americans faced as much discrimination in schools as did blacks, were routinely placed in vocational rather than academic programs, and were labeled mentally retarded in proportionately higher percentages because of the insensitivity of teachers and tests to their language and culture.6 Discrimination against Mexican Americans led to economic, educational, and political deprivation. In comparison to Anglos, Mexican Americans were poorer, lived in more crowded and dilapidated housing, had higher unemployment rates, had lower educational levels, were negatively portrayed in writings by the media and historians, and often were described as being fatalistic and underachieving by social scientists. Those stereotypes created the false image that Mexican Americans were lazy, passive, and unintelligent.7 Those conditions caused a significant amount of frustration among Mexican Americans, a frustration that led many of them to respond positively to appeals from leaders and organizations arguing for changes in the status quo. Leaders discovered that large numbers of community members were willing to join organizations, recruit others to those groups, and actively work for change. Chicano rhetoric did not simply focus on the negative, however. In their public discourse the spokespersons also emphasized positive aspects of Mexican American culture and life in an attempt to build pride and cohesiveness among members of the community. They appealed to the community’s rich history and the many positive attributes of community members. Philip Ortega described the Chicano movement as a “humanistic one. For it seeks to restore dignity to the American of Mexican ancestry. It seeks to reinvest Americans of Mexican ancestry with a sense of worth their heritage deserves. It seeks to elevate the pride of the past and the protean promise of self.”8 The rhetoric used powerful unifying terms like “Chicano” and “Aztlan” (a Chicano homeland) in an attempt to create a positive ethnic identity. That positive identity increased solidarity among members of the community and within the movement. The language used by the leaders was often adversarial and angry, portraying Anglos in negative terms, such as referring to them as gringos, that resonated with members of the community. The rhetoric often called for militant opposition to the dominant power structure. The leaders were dynamic orators whose rhetoric painted an image of an enemy that needed to be confronted and eventually defeated by a powerful movement. Their public discourse was supported by walkouts, marches, and other actions that physically confronted the Anglo power structure and helped to unify group members. Not all of the leaders used angry discourse, however. Cesar Chavez, for example, created a rhetoric that distinguished him from many of the other Chicano spokespersons . He mainly used moderate language and argued that change could best be achieved through nonviolent resistance. Only on rare occasions did he resort to angry or violent discourse. He chose that form of rhetoric because it fit his personality and because he had...


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