Who is Cesar Chavez? Here's why Joe Biden replaced portrait of Andrew Jackson in Oval Office

The new president brought some changes in his Oval Office decoration to emphasize on the message of unity for a divided America

                            Who is Cesar Chavez? Here's why Joe Biden replaced portrait of Andrew Jackson in Oval Office
Cesar Chavez and President Joe Biden (Getty Images)

Joe Biden on Wednesday, January 20, entered the Oval Office after taking over as the 46th US president and his opening day saw some personal changes being done. While he got a portrait of former president Andrew Jackson removed, a bust of labor leader Cesar Chavez was put behind the Resolute Desk.

According to a report by The Washington Post, the new layout inside Biden’s Oval Office includes busts of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy on either side of the fireplace. Busts of Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt have also been moved in. 

The portrait of Jackson, the controversial seventh president who served between 1829 and 1837, was hung at the Oval Office days after Donald Trump took over in January 2017. Trump frequently called himself a big fan of Jackson, who was also elected as a populist leader taking on the establishment forces. Biden got Jackson’s image replaced with one of Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the country. Biden also put up paintings of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, who were fierce opponents in life, close to each other “as hallmarks of how differences of opinion, expressed within the guardrails of the Republic, are essential to democracy,” the Post quoted Biden’s office as saying. Also at the office is a portrait of another former president, Franklin Roosevelt, who had also taken office at the time of several crises, including the Great Depression and World War II.

While it is clear from the decorations at Biden’s office that the new president emphasizes national unity after the US witnessed deep divisions over the last few years, the installation of Chavez’s bust was interesting.

Who was Cesar Chavez?

Cesar Estrada Chavez was a Mexican-American civil rights activist, union leader and labor organizer. Born in Yuma, Arizona, to immigrant parents in March 1927, Chavez had a hardened experience when he worked as manual labor and later in his life, he formed the National Farm Workers Association. His union joined hands with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in its first strike against California’s grape growers and the two bodies later merged resulting in the United Farm Workers (UFW). Inspired by non-violent protests purported by Indian independence fighter Mahatma Gandhi, Chavez conducted boycotts, marches and hunger strikes to back his causes. He succeeded in improving farm workers’ conditions in states such as Arizona, Texas, California and Florida despite facing challenges. 

Former president Barack Obama hugs Julie Chavez Rodriguez, White House Deputy Director of Public Engagement and granddaughter of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, before the screening of a movie at the White House, on March 19, 2014, in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

Chavez moved to California with his family at the age of 12 and for the next decade, they worked in the state’s fields. He came across poor conditions during this time and took them on later: pathetic migrant camps, corruption among labor contractors, poor wages for heavy work and racism. 

In 1952, Chavez took to organizing labor after meeting Father Donald McDonnell — an activist Catholic priest — and Fred Ross, an organizer with the Community Service Organization who roped in Chavez to join the platform. Chavez became the national director in a short period but quit in 1962 to work more on organizing a farmworkers’ union. 
A major turning point came in Chavez’s life in 1965 when the Farm Workers Association voted to back a strike that had been started by Filipino farmworkers in the grape fields in Delano, California. The diminutive leader and his union became nationally known in this time, thanks to his protest techniques such as non-violence, mass mobilization (the famous march in Sacramento in 1966) and alliance with organized labor. The UFW was recognized by the growers and the first contract was signed in 1966. In 1968, Chavez fasted for 21 days to protest the growing violence within the union and in July 1970, 26 Delano growers formally signed contracts recognizing the farmworkers’ body to give peace a chance at the vineyards. 

Chavez also backed the passage of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act — a first such thing in the country — believing that the ultimate solution to the farmworkers’ problems could be achieved through legislation. The Act promised to erase exploitation and give justice to the workers. But the promise remained unfulfilled in the face of opposition. In the late 1970s, Chavez saw the union undergoing a major reorganization to improve efficiency and public outreach. In 1984, responding to the grape industry’s refusal to restrict the use of pesticides on crops, Chavez started an international boycott of table grapes. 

A man holds a portrait of Cesar Chavez as Los Angeles Mayoral run-off candidate Antonio Villaraigosa (L) and Christine Chavez (R), granddaughter of Cesar, walk by in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on March 31, 2005, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

It’s for three decades that Chavez tirelessly worked to find solutions to problems of some of the most downtrodden working sections of the US. His final years saw the UFW’s involvement in a legal tussle with Bruce Church. The union was sued as it was accused of libel and threatening supermarkets to stop selling Red Coach lettuce. It was during the long-drawn case that Chavez breathed his last in San Luis, Arizona, in April 1993. He was 66. 

Chavez: Communist or anti-communist?

Throughout the 1960s, Chavez was the subject of several pages of FBI correspondence as his activism came under the scanner because authorities were skeptical about his intentions. A memorandum called ‘Communist Infiltration of the National Farm Workers Association’ dated October 1965 identified Chavez as a Mexican-American in his mid-to-late 30s and director of the National Farm Workers Association, Delano. There were accusations against Chavez that he was close with ‘left wing type individuals’ and that he had openly been called a “Communist” at Delano City Council meetings.

But there were others who felt he was not a communist but rather an anti-communist. World Socialist Web Site made a two-part story on Chavez in April 2016 in which it was said that the man had launched his political career on the basis of “anti-communism”. “In 1967, he opened the first “purge” of the farmworker movement expelling and shaming “disloyal” members. In particular, farmworkers and organizers who raised opposition to Chavez’s orientation toward the Democratic Party and his alliance with Reuther and the AFL-CIO were kicked out of the union on trumped-up charges of sympathy for communism.”It said Chavez’s anti-communism was bound up with a fierce kind of American nationalism and the combination of the two led to the emergence of openly anti-democratic and corrupt currents in the UFW.

Chavez had married his high-school sweetheart Helena Fabela in 1948 and the couple had eight children. Helena, who died in 2016, was also a labor activist but preferred to stay away from the limelight. She managed the household but temporarily left Chavez to live with one of her daughters in Delano after learning about a letter that another woman had written to her husband.

Biden’s action to bring in a bust of Chavez inside the Oval Office would remind one of the controversy that former president Barack Obama had courted in 2012, ahead of the presidential election that year, by visiting Delano. He was accused of playing politics by honoring Chavez to woo the Latino votes — a major support base for the Democrats which though didn’t turn out as favorably as the blue party would have expected them in the 2020 presidential election.

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