The American dream is deeply ingrained into the psyche of American thought; but, depending on your socio-economic situation and demographic, the narrative varies drastically. And, the power of dreams is immense in their capacity to make sense and nonsense out of forces in the world, shape the society we perceive, but also know ourselves. A dream can also ignite social change. Dreams can free people.
But the ‘paradox of dreams’ is that while the power of a vision contains the potential to inspire clear positive action, nightmares work in antithesis and drive rash negative decisions on the individual and political level.
Hispanic Heritage Month – September 15 to October 15 – is an excellent time to re-visit the American Dream and honor one of the most important Hispanic labor leaders in US history, Cesar Chavez, by recounting his speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco in 1984.
A traditionally subjugated version of the ‘American Dream’ took shape in Cesar Chavez’ speech in 1984; This conception of the American dream began with “thousands of farm workers liv[ing] under savage conditions – beneath trees and amid garbage and human excrement – near tomato fields in San Diego County.”
Chavez confesses “All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: To overthrow a farm labor system in this nation which treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings… That dream, that vision grew from my own experience with racism — with hope — with the desire to be treated fairly and to see my people treated as human beings.” So what becomes apparent is that while Chavez’ dream has political implications, it is not driven by a will to material wealth or social status, or political power. Instead, his dream is a reaction to alienation and an attempt empower a generation of impoverished, oppressed immigrants.
Chavez expressed in his speech how his dream grew as the product of the frustration and humiliation he felt as a young boy who couldn’t understand how the growers could “abuse and exploit farm workers when there were so many of us and so few of them.”
Furthermore, facing the adversity of America’s unfair labor practices, but more specifically, government subsidized corporate farm oppression of Latinos in California, Chavez states, “deep in my heart, I knew I could never be happy unless I tried organizing the farm workers. I didn’t know if I would succeed. But I had to try.”
The political vehicle for Chavez’ dream became the union. But unlike other political agendas, Chavez’ vision transcended the abstract of an individual’s dream of racial equality in the land of the free, to an organization of individuals who shared the principle underlying the non-violent Latino civil rights movement.
But Chavez observes of the nonviolent blueprint for civil rights activism, “We attacked that injustice not by complaining; not by seeking hand-outs; not by becoming soldiers in the War on Poverty. We organized!” So, what Chavez was able to do was facilitate the growth of a cultural consciousness that allowed the Latino population of America to see they were a victim of democratic obstruction.
Chavez was not advocating for some grand political policy or redistribution of entitlements, just “a society where majority rule and collective bargaining are supposed to be more than academic theories or political rhetoric.” And what was truly gained through Chavez’ dream was the expanded capacity for an oppressed group to see that they had a chance to create the future. And, Chavez further asserts, “The message was clear: If it could happen in the fields, it could happen anywhere — in the cities, in the courts, in the city councils, in the state legislatures.”
What the California farm workers taught America was that there is power in unity, pride in diversity, and strength in equality. The American Dream chants a will to exceptionalism for the individual and society, a marriage between inward principle and political ethic, but also a drive to live out the contingent dream that orients American progress. So, Chavez, echoing these principles, through the language of the Chicano farm worker reminds us that, “Like the other immigrant groups, the day will come when we win the economic and political rewards which are in keeping with our numbers in society. The day will come when the politicians do the right thing by our people out of political necessity and not out of charity or idealism. That day may not come this year. That day may not come during this decade. But it will come, someday!”