“To be a man is to suffer for others”

I came across a very interesting essay on Cesar Chavez, the famous Mexican-American labor activist, through Arts and Letters Daily.  The author, Richard Rodriguez, is strangely ambivalent in his estimation of Chavez.  Many of the aspects of Chavez which the author is reluctant to endorse–his penchant for failure, his opposition to immigration, his aceticism and piety–will hardly seem like vices to conservatives.  It thus seems rather unfair for Rodriguez to lump Chavez and M. L. King Jr. together as “flawed” sixties heroes.  King’s known flaws were much more serious.

Rodriguez claims that Chavez lacked the rhetorical brilliance of contemporary black Protestant civil rights preachers.  However, one thing Chavez the Mexican Catholic said did strike him as memorable:

The speech Chavez had written during his hunger strike of 1968, wherein he compared the UFW to David fighting Goliath, announced the Mexican ­theme:  “I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally ­non-­violent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be ­men.”  

(Nearly three decades later, in the program for Chavez’s funeral, the wording of his psalm was revised—“humanity” substituted for “manliness”: To be human is to suffer for others. God help me to be human.)Nothing else Chavez would write during his life had such haunting power for me as this public prayer for a life of suffering; no utterance would sound so Mexican. Other cultures in the world assume the reality of suffering as something to be overcome. Mexico assumes the inevitability of suffering. That knowledge informs the folk music of Mexico, the bitter humor of its proverbs, the architecture of its stoicism. To be a man is to suffer for others. The code of machismo (which in American English translates too crudely to sexual bravado) in Mexico derives from a medieval chivalry whereby a man uses his strength to protect those less powerful. God help us to be men.

Rodriguez suggests a very important point here.  When some idiot priest decided to change Chavez’s saying at his funeral to make it more “gender inclusive”, he totally ruined it.  (Isn’t it odd that to find the elements in the Catholic Church effectively censoring a labor leader widely regarded as a hero on the Left for being insufficiently liberal?)  “To be a man is to suffer for others” has a much deeper resonance.  It brings to mind the whole code of chivalry, a distinctly masculine ideal of the protector-father.  The word “human” is just bland–it might as well be “homo sapien”.  It brings to mind no sense of social role or expectation.

The funny thing is, one could also say “To be a woman is to suffer for others”, and this would also touch us on a deep level.  It brings to mind all the self-sacrifice made by generation after generation of wives and mothers.  As an example, remember when Julie Jordon, the heroine in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, sings

Common sense may tell you that the neding will be sad
And now’s the time to break and run away.
But what’s the use of wondering if the ending will be sad
He’s your fella and you love him.  There’s nothing more to say

Something made him the way that he is
Wether he is fast or true
And something gave him the things that are his
One of those things is you

So when he wants your kisses
You’ll give them to the lad
And anywhere he leads you you will walk
And anytime he needs you
You’ll go running there like mad

You’re his girl
And he’s your fella
And all the rest is talk

Isn’t there something so very feminine about this acceptance of suffering for the sake of love?

To sum up:  to be a man is to suffer for others; to be a woman is to suffer for others; to be a human doesn’t have this meaning.  How can this be?  Because man and woman are two distinct callings to loving self-sacrifice.  Let us not be mere humans.  Let us be men and women.

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