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Honoring César Chávez--and His Call to Stop Eating Animals
March 31 is the late César Chávez's birthday, and it is being celebrated as an official state holiday in California and other states. The Cesar E. Chávez National Holiday Web site tells us much about the admirable man for whom many of us, including President Barack Obama, want to see a national holiday. Yet despite a long "About" page detailing Chávez's life, beliefs, activism, and many accomplishments, there's not a word about the strong position he held regarding nonviolence toward animals. Not a word about his commitment to vegetarianism (including not only a vegetarian but even a vegan diet for at least some period) for the last 25 years of his life. Not a word about his opposition to exploitation of animals on all fronts, including research, "sport," and entertainment. The same can be said of the many news articles that are noting today's significance.
Image of Chávez with his canine companions by Cathy Murphy. Retrieved from the Walter P. Reuther Library United Farm Workers Collection.
And this is inexcusable.
It's inexcusable that when we talk about luminaries such as Coretta Scott King, who was a committed vegan for the last decade-plus of her life, and César Chávez, who defended animals so unequivocally, we celebrate their work on behalf of humans and completely ignore their positions on animals. Could it be that their realizations and decisions in this area are boxed away and rarely spoken of because they challenge the rest of us to come to the same realizations and decisions? Could it be that those who are made uncomfortable by those views, because of their own continued exploitation and consumption of animals, choose not to give attention to their heroes' stances on animal issues? Is the compassion toward animals they modeled and encouraged too challenging?
Chávez did not just stop eating animals and stop supporting animal exploitation himself and call it a personal choice. He called on others to do the same, including many of his friends within the farm labor movement.
"Cesar took genuine pride in producing numerous converts to vegetarianism over the decades. You’re looking at one of them," UFW [United Farm Workers] president Arturo Rodriguez said in 1996 during a speech at a farm conference. "He felt so strongly about it that sometimes I think he took as much personal satisfaction from converting people to vegetarianism as he did to trade unionism."
His niece similarly reported on Chávez's influence, in Más Magazine:
Camila Chavez found her transition to a vegetarian lifestyle not only easy, but also saw it as a way to honor her uncle Cesar E. Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union.
“Cesar was a vegan. He didn’t eat any animal products. He was a vegan because he believed in animal rights but also for his health,” Chavez said. “Growing up I was always surrounded by vegetarians and vegetarian meals were always an option. When Cesar died, I decided to become a vegetarian in honor of him.”
He took the philosophies of compassion and nonviolence to their logical next step. And my assumption is that most people just don't know this. But those who celebrate Chávez and yet knowingly ignore his call for the end of exploitation of animals, knowingly leave it out of his biography--because it's not convenient, because they don't want to stop exploiting and killing animals themselves--are doing his memory a dishonor.
César Chávez said, in 1992, during his acceptance of a Lifetime Achievement Award from In Defense of Animals:
We need, in a special way, to work twice as hard to make all people understand that animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves. And that's the basis for peace. The basis for peace is respecting all creatures. . . . We cannot hope to have peace until we respect everyone--respect ourselves and respect animals and all living things. . . . We know we cannot defend and be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them – exploiting them in the name of science, exploiting animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting animals in the name of food.
Birthday and every day, Mr. Chávez, you were and are beloved by countless people, and many of us thank you and honor you not only for your tireless work on behalf of humans, but for your inspiring, compassionate efforts on behalf of animals as well.
To my readers who are still eating animals and animal products, I ask that today, on César Chávez's birthday, you open your mind and heart to what he opened his mind and heart to and consider extending your circle of compassion to animals. Make today a vegan day. Pick up a book or two about animal sentience and emotions and animal rights. Pick up or order a vegan cookbook. Honor Chávez's memory by opening yourself up to the possibility that he was right not only about the rights of humans, but about the rights and lives of animals as well. Honor a remarkable, nonviolent man by embracing true nonviolence in your own life.
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