In 1968, in the thick of the farmworkers' struggle to gain basic rights and relief from brutal mistreatment, Cesar Chavez didn't just march or strike or demonstrate − he fasted in order to raise awareness about his movement and highlight the importance of nonviolent resistance.
Today, a new generation of activists is going without all food except water -- this time to bring attention to the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform.
I visited the fasters yesterday on the National Mall, where they are camped out in tents. I was moved by their conviction and their moral clarity. They regard their discomfort as a mere inconvenience compared to the suffering of those living on the margins, often separated from their families and stripped of basic dignity.
One man who's been fasting for 10 days told me: "This is a way to pay back my parents' sacrifices." Fasting, he explained, is "the only way I can look into my parents' and community's eyes and tell them I did everything I could to pass comprehensive immigration reform."
With 11 million people living in the shadows, toiling in an underground, exploitative economy that depresses wages and working conditions for everyone, the immigration status quo is intolerable and unconscionable. Fixing it is a humanitarian and economic imperative.
We are indeed a nation of immigrants. People who choose to come to America have always been one of our greatest sources of national vitality. They keep our economy strong and our communities dynamic. They are some of our greatest patriots. My parents, fleeing a repressive regime in the Dominican Republic, were embraced by this country and taught us to love it in return. After my father served proudly in the U.S. Army, they settled in Buffalo, N.Y., and were able to live the American Dream. They taught me and my four siblings to work hard, to aim high and also to make sure the ladder is down for others.
Eliseo Medina, a stalwart of the labor movement who was an associate of Cesar Chavez and is now one of the leaders of this "Fast for Families" effort, has said: "I fast not out of anger or despair, but out of faith, of hope and love." For him and others, this fast is an act of empowerment, fueled by a belief that our nation's leaders will rise to this moment and give us an immigration system worthy of America and consistent with our values.
"Paciencia y fe," my mother always used to say − patience and faith. I believe, because of the passion and the resilience of the fasters I met today, and so many others acting with courage and conviction across our country, we will get there.