Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Biographical Poetry Pairings - César Chavez

In 2008 the state of Virginia added Cesar Chavez to the standards for history and social science in third grade. Under the heading of civics instruction students learn about the importance of the basic principles of democracy and identify the contributions of selected individuals.  Chavez was added to a list that already included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King, Jr.. As this list is meant to expose children to people who worked to defend the basic principles that form the foundation of our government, I was thrilled when he was added.

If you don't know much about Chavez, here's a quick video introduction.

Today's pairing offers a glimpse into the life and work of Cesar Chavez.

Poetry Book
César: ¡, Se Puede! Yes We Can, written by Carmen Bernier-Grand and illustrated by David Diaz, is a biography written in a series of 19 free verse poems. It is one of the most comprehensive and moving biographies of the man I have ever read. What is different about this work is that it does not shy away from the difficulties and injustices he faced in his life. Instead, his life story is told head on, shining a spotlight on the good and bad times. It begins not with his birth, but a poem that wonders at what and who he would become. From here the poems describe his name, his dad, his mom, happy moments of childhood, the Depression, the constant moving, working the fields, schooling, losing the family ranch, the farm workers' struggles, organizing the workers, his death, and much more.

Here is the poem that opens the book.
Who Could Tell?
Who could tell?
Who could tell
that Cesario Estrada Chavez,
the shy American
wearing a checkered shirt,
walking with a can to ease his back
from the burden of the fields,
could organize so many people
to march for La Causa, The Cause?
Who could tell
that he with a soft pan dulce voice,
hair the color of mesquite,
and downcast, Aztec eyes,
would have the courage to speak up
for the campesinosto get better pay,
better housing,
better health?
Who could tell?
Here is one of my favorite poems from the book.
Crooked Lines

"God has written in exceedingly
crooked lines."

What made César follow
Father McDonnell
from camp to camp
and Mass to Mass?

What made Father McDonnell
give César the teachings and prayers
of Saint Francis of Assisi:
"Lord, make me an instrument
of your peace"?

Why did a book about Saint Francis
mention Mahatma Gandhi,
a man of peace who won many battles
against injustices in India?

Why did César talk
to Father McDonnell
about his passion for peaceful change
and the leadership hidden deep
inside him?

What made Father McDonnell
send Fred Ross, from the
Community Service Organization,
to see César?

God's crooked lines.
Poems ©Carmen Bernier-Grand. All rights reserved.

The back matter is extensive and includes a section of notes, a glossary of Spanish terms used in the poems, a short synopsis of Chávez's life, a brief chronology, the author's sources, and a collection of Chávez's quotes. On the back jacket of the book readers will find Chavez's core values. They were: service to others, sacrifice, a preference to help the most needy, determination, nonviolence, acceptance of all people, respect for life and environment, community, knowledge, and innovation.

Nonfiction Picture Book
Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez, written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is a biography of Chavez that focuses on the impact of his early years, his work in the fields and organizing the workers, and efforts to sign the first contract for farmworkers. Krull shares both the highs and lows of his life, painting him as a kind and patient man who worked tirelessly on behalf of others. Here is an excerpt from his youth.
Cesar swallowed his bitter homesickness and worked alongside his family. He was small and not very strong, but still a fierce worker. Nearly every crop caused torment. Yanking out beets broke the skin between his thumb and index finger. Grapevines sprayed with bug-killing chemicals made his eyes sting and his lungs wheeze. Lettuce had to the be the worst. Thinning lettuce all day with a short-handled hoe would make hot spasms shoot through his back. Farm chores on someone else's farm instead of his own felt like a form of slavery.
As Cesar grew older and began to work on behalf of the farmworkers, he organized them and supported a nonviolent approach. Here is another excerpt.
In a fight for justice, he told everyone, truth was a better weapon than violence. "Nonviolence," he said, "takes more guts." It meant using imagination to find ways to overcome powerlessness. 
More and more people listened. 
One night, 150 people poured into an old abandoned theater in Fresno. At this first meeting of the National Farm Workers Association, Cesar unveiled its flag—a bold black eagle, the sacred bird of the Aztec Indians.
La Causa—The Cause—was born. 
Text ©Kathleen Krull. All rights reserved.

While the book ends with the signing of the first contract for farm workers, there was still much work to be done. Krull shares some of the highlights of Chavez's continued work in an Author's Note. 

The Art
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the art in these two books. Both of these illustrators, David Diaz and Yuyi Morales, have earned medals and been honored by the The Pura Belpré Award. This award is "presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."  HARVESTING HOPE was an honor book for illustration in 2004, while CÉSAR: ¡SÍ, SE PUEDE! YES WE CAN was an honor book for illustration in 2006. While different in style, they are both gorgeous accompaniments to the stories of Chavez.

Perfect Together
There are a number of other good biographies written for children about Chavez. These two are my favorites, in part because the illustrations are so highly reflective of the culture they represent. I also think the two pair nicely in that a number of the poems match times in the life of Chavez highlighted by Krull.

For additional resources, consider these sites.

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