Why Did Cesar Chavez Fast? The Hunger Fast as a Tool of Nonviolence

Why Did Cesar Chavez Fast? The Hunger Fast as a Tool of Nonviolence


So, one of the tactics that Cesar Chavez was most well-known for was the hunger fast. The hunger fast is one of the more misunderstood
elements in his arsenal of nonviolent weapons. There’s the tradition of hunger striking, which many people know about, in which you will threaten to withhold food
from yourself, and liquids in some cases, until some kind of institutional change is made around you. Chavez always emphasized that what he was engaging in was not a hunger strike. That is, he was not attaching any kinds of demands to his fasting. What these were were acts of penance, he always said. The first one happened in 1968. The farmworkers had been
engaged in a multiyear strike in the grape industry. And it was very very difficult. There had been many people striking for years. It didn’t seem that the agribusiness in California was going to
cave in or work and negotiate with the farmworkers. It was a very difficult time for the farmworkers, the union,
to try to decide what they should move forward with. And so, he meditated for a while on this and said, “What I think I need to do is, I need
to have a fast. And the fast is to recognize that we have been thinking about violence and
that there is violence all around us. This is a space of pulling back from the struggle to think
about what kind of world do we want to create.” And his view was that, Yes, if we use property damage and destruction it might bring about a quicker resolution to the strike. It might threaten and scare some of the
workers to come to the table quicker. But, what would be the kind of agreement? What
would be the kind of outcome that would come from an agreement in which
the parties were talking to each other under duress or under threat? Cesar Chavez said, “I am coming to this fast not so
that the growers will be intimidated by my dying, to come to the table, but this is
more for us, the farmworkers, so that we can have a space of meditation and
think about what we want to accomplish.” I think the third fast is really powerful. I think this was in 1988 or 1989. Cesar Chavez started to find out about the extent of the
health damage that pesticides can cause in the environment and he decided, he said, to call for the fast because, he said, “The fast is about suffering. Suffering for others. I want to create a spectacle about suffering.
I want people to see me suffering. And, I want people to see other people suffering.” And the idea was to extend this into a great chain of suffering. And so, these were important tactics to be able to
show people, who might not normally see it, the hidden pockets of pain and suffering that go on
in our society as a result of structural violence.

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