Not so long ago, I was invited to a business dinner at a posh little restaurant with an impressive wine list. Midway through dinner, our host asked a question for each of us to ponder: Who
is the most famous person you've personally met who made the biggest impression on you?
Having spent 5+ years as a newspaper reporter, I've interviewed some pretty interesting people, including Ken Lay before his demise and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who launched the whole chaos theory.
I've also had some less-than-savory encounters with other famous folk, including a cruel professional basketball player and one big-name White House TV correspondent who stepped on my hand till it hurt, grabbed my reporter's pad and ridiculed my scribbled notes in front of the capitol press corp who were following Jimmy Carter, and generally made a spectacle of himself and a horrified, humiliated cub reporter of me. And all of these people made a big and lasting impression.
But it was long before those days that I met the person whose name I would ultimately give as my answer at that dinner. And it was his hands, his gentleness, his smiling hooded eyes, his powerful message that jolted awake some radical part of being.
Without a doubt, it was Cesar Chavez. And today is his birthday.
I was among thousands of Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chicanos, and Chicanas who massed in droves to see and hear Chavez speak elegantly of our power to bring about change by boycotting grapes and lettuce to protect and defend the rights of migrant farm workers. I was a gawky teen then, with grand ideas about justice and civil rights and what I was going to do with my life.
I never imagined I'd have the opportunity to shake his hand. But I did, and he looked me
straight in the eyes as if we were the only two people in the room. I'm sure he said something lovely, but I don't remember the words. Just the sensation of being touched and his warmth and his simple humanness.
I'd have given all my allowance to have him be my uncle, to traipse after him and ask him questions and just sit in his shadow and soak up his goodness. I gave my dollars, of course, to the cause--and I boycotted grapes with a vengeance.
Except for the night the question was asked, when I sipped wine without a single thought to who picked the grapes.