A letter from Cesar Chavez’s granddaughter

Personal essay: USC student Paloma Chavez shares her story of growing up in California and how new generations are paving their own way forward

Every year on March 31, my social media feeds are flooded with the mantra “Si Se Puede,” usually alongside a photo of my grandfather, Cesar Chavez. Pre-pandemic, my family attended events for his birthday whether it was at the Forty Acres in Delano, Calif., where the movement began or at La Paz in Kern County where my grandparents were laid to rest.

I didn’t grow up like my father, though. I grew up in Hillsborough, Calif., which ranks among the most expensive neighborhoods in America. My brothers grew up playing golf. I played piano and my mother was part of a weekly book club. My father was the first and only person in his family to attend college. He became a lawyer and was beginning to live the “American Dream.”

I didn’t really know my roots growing up. That’s not because my parents neglected to share stories with me or because I didn’t speak Spanish, but it was because of my environment. I was surrounded by people who didn’t look like me and I hadn’t even realized it.

My half-brother Alejandro would be carpooling home from school and his peers would taunt him saying, “You don’t live there. You’re the nanny’s son.” It was a completely false claim. He did live there – basketball court and all. My older brother, Sam, is a professional golfer. Both of my brothers attended universities on Division 1 golf scholarships.

A few semesters ago, I enrolled in a journalism class required for my major at USC. Toward the end of the semester, my professor connected the dots and asked me, “Are you Cesar Chavez’s granddaughter?”

I laughed as I always do and said, “I am.”

Earlier in class, I had an Olympic Club crew neck on. The Olympic Club is a well-known country club where my family holds a membership.

“I find it hard to believe the granddaughter of Cesar Chavez plays golf,” my professor said. I laughed off the statement and he continued to say, “I just have a cultural bias towards golf.”

I didn’t really comprehend the conversation I had just witnessed. As time passed, I realized my professor couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that a migrant farm worker’s granddaughter was playing what is known to be a white man’s sport.

Yet, this begs the question – I am a young brown woman, so should I fall victim to societally pressured stereotypes and be a maid? Or what about a nanny? The answer is no. The intention of society is to be a melting pot of diverse occupations, representations and minorities – there isn’t one profession that’s used as the umbrella job for a minority.

I noticed there was this strange, inaccurate duality with what my professor said. If you grow up like my father, constantly facing economic adversity and go off to college and succeed financially, you’re a sellout. You’ve lost sight of what your siblings and parents went through when your intention was merely to change the course of history for future generations. Yet, if my father hadn’t gone to college, continued to live in Delano, and took over as the leader of the UFW after his father passed, he didn’t have the drive to fulfill his American dream. It’s a lose-lose.

My father often says, “Not everyone needs to be an activist. Not everyone needs to be a doctor and not everyone needs to be a CEO.” The entire premise of society is to create a diverse environment where there shouldn’t be a pressure to commit to a profession based on what others in that profession look like. A brown man can be a golfer, a farmworker, a CEO. A white woman can be a maid, a teacher or a pilot. It’s been ingrained in us to fall victim to the confines of a box by what we look like or how we were raised. The future of our children and grandchildren doesn’t have to mimic how we live or lived. We as a society and my father as the outnumbered are able to write our own present and future, even if our past was written for us.