Alejandro Chavez is not only the grandson of renowned Mexican-American civil rights activist and labor movement leader Cesar Chavez, but a civil rights leader and organizer in his own right. He has organized demonstrations to support citizenship for immigrant essential workers, served as plaintiff in the 2019 Supreme Court case against the controversial citizenship question proposed for the most recent U.S. Census, and continues his grandfather’s legacy by advocating for farm worker rights.
Alejandro Chavez sat down with ParentsTogether’s Mckenna Saady to talk about the importance of Hispanic Heritage Month, and how families of all backgrounds can get involved. He also talked about what his own Chicano heritage means to him and his family, and how Hispanic culture is integral to our identity as Americans.
M: Your grandfather was such a Civil Rights icon who has inspired generations. What is something he taught you, specifically?
A: My grandfather did many great things, and he taught us many things from movement and servitude. I always think of myself as a community servant and that’s because of him. But one thing I think he instilled in us most—and even though it was us as children, I think it was something we saw in the movement, and something I know I try to instill in my children—is that being Chicano, coming from a working class family, being the grandson of a farm worker—that is a good thing. There’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in remembering where you came from.
When we would go spend summers visiting our grandfather, he would always be travelling so we spent most of the time with my grandmother and our cousins. But when he was there, he had this little plot and a little garden next to his house where he grew things. Nothing complicated, you know, watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew—the things you could make al frescas from, for the movement. And he’d have us help him. It was nothing big—a couple wheelbarrows, moving stuff—I just figured he’s an older man, he has his grandsons here so he’s having us do it. But the more I’ve learned about him and how he was from not just books but from people who actually knew him when he was younger…he was always about teaching a lesson. He was always about helping people learn things through doing. I like to believe that lesson was always to remind us that we actually came from farm worker families. That’s our roots. And that’s ok. Never forget that we did come from the fields. Our family was farm workers. They wore working class clothes. We are Chicano. And all of that stuff we can take pride in because those are good things and we have good family values.
M: What do you prefer to be called? (Hispanic/Latino/x/e/Chicano)?
A: For me, I’m Chicano. For those who are not aware, a Chicano is somebody from Mexican culture who was born in America, who doesn’t speak Spanish (like I don’t), but strongly identifies with Latino culture and heritage. My name’s Alejandro Chavez, I grew up in a traditional Catholic family, and a lot of those types of values that I carry, obviously with a modern-day update to be more inclusive and inviting to all families and all people…but I prefer Chicano.
Now let me get this straight—I understand the term Latinx and I get where people come from and why they like to use it. For me, I identify as Chicano, and I think it’s so important and it matters. Someone from South America isn’t going to identify with Chicano. They aren’t going to identify with Mexican American. So I get it, and I respect how people choose to identify. But if you ask me, Alejandro Chavez is Chicano, and brown and proud!
M: What do you love most about being Chicano?
A: Honestly, I love being brown. I know that’s not just a Chicano thing—there’s a lot of cultures that are brown. But when I talk to communities, specifically Black communities, I don’t use the term African American. I think Black is beautiful, I think brown is beautiful, so I use those terms because our skin is beautiful. We are beautiful people. So that is one thing I do enjoy.
I also really appreciate the culture that comes with it—the set of family values. Chicano families are big! I have two children but I’m one of six kids. I’m one of 32 grandchildren. My dad is one of eight kids, and I love it!
I love the art, I love old-school Chicano music. For those of you that get a chance to go to East LA, because there was a time that it was looked at as poor and bad, but now it’s looked at as beautiful. There are parts of it that haven’t been gentrified that are just as beautiful. If you think about street art, think about Chicano Park in San Diego, what it represents, how the community came together. Those types of things. I don’t think it’s one thing, I think it’s the whole package. Every part of it is beautiful to me.
And I think the best part about it is that it’s all represented in other various cultures as well. I recently learned that, in Japan, they have this huge low-rider, and Chicano and Cholo culture. I think that’s fantastic. If you even look to what the cowboy is, that comes from the norteño which is Mexican, and part of Chicano culture. It’s so represented everywhere you look and those are the things I like about it.
M: When you think about your grandfather’s legacy, how do you honor him today? What are some ways that other folks can honor his legacy as well?
A: To honor my grandfather is not a one-time thing. The truth is, my grandfather did the work every day for his entire life. It’s a constant, and that’s the way I view it. My kids are not fortunate enough to just say, “Hey, I’m not going to be brown today.” My wife is half-Black. They can’t say,
“I’m not going to be half-Black today. I’m not going to be a person of color today.” They don’t get the ability to walk away from it, so it’s kind of a constant with them.
And I’ll be honest, there’s many challenges that come with it, like trying to help them identify and appreciate their hair, or how to appreciate their names. I think those are the things we have to do. Everyday little things we do, not just out in the world, but at home in our families. And it’s not just, “My uncle made a joke and I corrected him.” That’s great, but have you and your children talked about other people in their class who might be suffering? Have you talked about things they may say, or things you may see on TV that may not be ok. I can’t talk enough about how much needs to be done at home with the children and families you have, because if you’re doing it at home, people feel more comfortable doing it out in the world. It’s the everyday little things you can do to supply your children, your family, and those in your network with the support to know that they can take what you’re working on at home out into the world and encourage it more.
M: At ParentsTogether we create resources for families to discuss important topics, as well as connect and have fun. I know you’re a dad—how do you celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with your kids? How do you talk to your kids about their heritage?
We try to show love, not say love. Love is an action, it’s a verb. It’s something you do, it’s a constant, it’s evolving. We constantly try to show them what we’re talking about. We constantly try to show them the values that we believe. For example, I give a lot of money to unhoused people, or people who ask for it, and I always reinforce to the children that we’ve decided to help these people. Our call is to help someone who is asking. You either help, or you don’t. You don’t judge. You don’t know where they are in their life. In doing that, we try to show our values, and we have the conversation about what they represent and why.
I mean, Hispanic Heritage Month is every day for us. We also do a lot of speaking engagements, and we try to bring them to as many as possible so they can see that it’s not just us who believe it. There’s actually a whole world of people in society who believe it. And we’re very fortunate to have great public school teachers who put opportunities in their day-to-day curriculum that we’re able to reinforce when they get home.
M: Why do you think it’s important to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?
If you look at where some folks live, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas—there’s a whole great deal of people that, one day, the border was just on the other side of them. Our words, our language, the streets we drive on, the foods we eat are all linked to Hispanic heritage. Like I mentioned before, the American cowboy got his style from what would be modern-day Hispanics.
It’s less about celebrating and more about respecting something you already do all the time. Taco Tuesday, right? That’s a way that lots of families interact weekly with Hispanic culture. So maybe that’s a way that people can think about what this month really means and think of it more as respect to the culture that you take part in and participate in all year long. It’s an opportunity to respect and learn where that came from.
And I think it’s about talking about some of the people who paved the way for the great artists we have today, like my grandfather and some of the Chicano artists, the truth about Zapata and Villa, and Che Guevara. Some of their work, like my grandfather and grandmother’s work, was always about making sure that farmworkers’ children had the same opportunities as growers’ children. A lot of times when we’re talking about these great revolutionaries, we forget that it’s as simple as some of them wanted their children to have the same opportunities as others’. In that spirit, we should all take the opportunity to learn more and respect the culture more because so much of that work was about creating opportunities for children, and that’s something we can all agree upon. That’s why it’s so important to respect this month, because it’s so much about our children.
M: For families who don’t identify as Hispanic/Latino—what are some ways they can celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?
Food is a great way. Maybe you use tacos—different types of tacos from different cultures. They are very different. Or use empanadas, or pupusas. I love pupusas. You can use food as an opportunity to branch into other cultures and understand different dynamics. We all need food, and that’s a great way. If cooking isn’t your thing, then go to new restaurants. The ones that are locally owned and authentic are the ones that need the business most. They’re also usually family owned, as we should all be trying to support dynamics like that. If you see art on the wall, ask questions like, “What does that represent?” If you see something unfamiliar on the menu, ask them to explain it, and if you’ve never tried it, try it!
If you want to really engage, there are a lot of local businesses and local artists. Get out there and listen to them. You can use the internet to look people up. If you have little girls and you want to find women for them to look up to, search for Mexican-American Women of the Revolution. Now there are so many videos, you can just sit back and watch with your children. Those types of things are easy to do with your children, and in a family dynamic they can be fun to watch.
M: It’s been a really tough 18 months, especially for Hispanic/Latino families who have faced big health and economic disparities. How are you finding hope, joy, or inspiration during this Hispanic Heritage Month?
I’m finding joy knowing there could be a vaccination for children over 5 by November 1st! So I’ve got that, and my children are happy about that. Another thing giving me hope this month are the Census numbers. I actually was the Arizona defendant in the lawsuit to stop the citizenship question. So that gives me hope—seeing those numbers, where they’re going. I think that represents what I was talking about earlier—how we’re represented in so many cultures. I think that plays a role in why the numbers are reflected how they are. People who may have previously identified as Caucasian or white may now identify as mixed race because they are finding out that they actually had a Martinez in their family. Devin Booker who plays for the Phoenix Suns didn’t find out until right before he moved to Arizona that he’s half Latino. So his Census is an example, where ten years ago he probably identified as half-Black and now he identifies as Black and Latino. So that’s what gives me hope—seeing that more and more people are connecting to their roots in Latino and Hispanic culture. Those things give me hope that we’re heading to a place where we’re all starting to recognize and identify where we come from and who we are.
The other thing that gives me great joy is that I get the opportunity to speak to groups like you. I can’t thank you enough for these conversations because it is important. I always talk about how my grandfather’s work was great and amazing, however it only reached its magnitude because of the women from Portland, Oregon who were suddenly showing up to events and being like, “What do you mean these farm worker children are having to work the fields?” They had no idea. It’s important when you start having more people of other races in the crowd speaking up, not just in allyship but in true partnership and in true community.