Elegy on the Death of César Chávez

author: Rudolfo A. Anaya
illustrator: Gaspar Enriquez
Cinco Puntos Press, 2000
grades 5-up 
Mexican American

And we have wept for him until our eyes are dry…

Here, brilliant novelist and seasoned Chicano activist Rudolfo Anaya pens for middle readers (and everyone else) an impassioned poem about grief, about mourning, about history and the greatness of a humble man of la gente—and ultimately, about hope for the future.

With a nod to Christianity, Shakespeare, Shelley and Whitman—and spot-on use of meter and repetition, combined with natural code-switching throughout the poem (“Across the land we heard las campanas doblando/ Ha muerto César; Ha muerto César”)—Anaya teams with Chicano artist Gaspar Enriquez to bring us a work of unparalleled clarity and beauty, a poem of honoring and love for a person whose untimely passing was a blow to the Raza community and to the world.

As an elegy for a humble leader, la gente’s hero, it moves from grief (“this earth he loves so well is dry and mourning”), to hope (“his disciples know he is not dead/ for in the dawn we see the morning star/ el lucero de Dios”), and finally, to a continuation of the struggle against oppression (“throughout Aztlán we call the young to gather: Rise, mi gente, rise”).

That Anaya’s poem and Enriquez’s artwork “lack subtlety” (as one reviewer wrote) is an understatement: there is no pretense here, no couching of either emotion or motive. This is an elegy, to be sure; it’s also a cry for action and unity, to rise against injustice and oppression.

Enriquez’s airbrushed mixed-media collage artwork, presented as a series of old snapshots, is built from existing photos, some from the United Farm Worker archives. As such, his art both communicates a feeling of familia y comunidad and complements Anaya’s poetry. Here, amid farm worker flags, the US flag, and Aztec symbols, is a weeping Virgen de Guadalupe (“you starved your body so we might know your spirit”). Here is a handcuffed farm worker, tendrils from a cluster of grapes framing his hands and the cop’s gun (“a scourge on the oppressors of the poor”). Here are agricultural workers, bent over in the backbreaking labor of harvesting onions (“this man who was a guide across fields of toil”). Here are farm worker children—superimposed over an image of a crop duster and a newspaper headline—whose lives are threatened by cancer-causing pesticides (“children uneducated in a land grown fat with greed”). Here are a group of cholos, the young people with whom Enriquez works, contemplating unity (“rise not against each other, but for each other”).

Helpful additions, especially for classroom and school libraries, include a chronology at the end of the book, which is made into a beautiful poster on the inside of the dust jacket, and a heartfelt note from Anaya about César’s life and work. At the end, Anaya implores young people:

Build the house of justice, the poem says in the end. Each one of us has a role in building that house. Each one of us must make a commitment to build a better society. Yes, we must organize. We must work together. We must fight against oppression. In this way we honor César and all the good men and women who have struggled to better our lives.

In a classroom or school library, Elegy can provide a multiplicity of thoughtful exercises. Pairing Elegy with Carmen Bernier-Grand’s excellent César: Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! can elicit discussion of contrasts and similarities in the ways that poetry can be used to describe oppression and call for struggle, and students can try out different forms of poetic writing to express their feelings about family and community. Contrasting the art in Elegy with Yuyi Morales’ art in Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez and Ilan Stavans’ Cesar Chavez: A Photographic Essay can support discussion and art activities around the topic of symbolism and realism in art. Both Spanish speakers and Spanish language learners can look at the power of code-switching and idiomatic Spanish in poetry and try this technique in writing about their own lives. As well, non-Spanish speakers can use Elegy to examine the use of metaphor in poetry and discuss what kinds of writing resonates with them. And finally, all students can be asked to think deeply and describe their personal commitments (in writing or art or both) to “build the house of justice.”

Bravo, Rudolfo and Gaspar and Cinco Puntos Press! Elegy on the Death of César Chávez is an amazing work that’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin and María Cárdenas
(published 6/30/14)

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