“Sí Se Puede” is not a new concept for me. It’s not something abstract or removed like you’d assume from looking at this 24 year old white computer programmer from Long Beach, California. If anything, I long to return somehow to “Sí Se Puede”, like a traveler who has been away so long, he yearns more to be home than he can even remember the particulars.
I’ll sometimes jump into a conversation with a couple of people speaking Spanish to one another at work, or any other random encounter. With confident fluidity that you only get from being taught a language from birth, I’ll interject a few sentences and get greeted with a look similar to the one you might get having just mystified an audience with a magic trick. They’re thinking: ‘what’s this white kid’s story?’
The story for me begins with a colorfully decorated tin container on my mom’s dresser filled with old and worn buttons. They say simple slogans: “Uvas No”, “No Grapes”, “La Huelga”, “Nixon eats lettuce”, and of course “Si Se Puede”. Throughout her life she may add another pin for a cause she believes in, but rarely does it match up to the years she and my dad spent learning, teaching, organizing, and fighting for the United Farm Workers union.
My dad never finished college, having gotten so involved in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era that he never found the direction to take to continue on that path. Instead, he’d learn a trade and become an auto mechanic, only then to take that sorely needed skill with him as one of two UFW mechanics. It wasn’t long though that he learned to organize, lead petition drives, and take on a leadership role in the union. My mom would start a school for children of the farm workers, making it a mission to make sure these kids could get an education where the public schools would reject them for not speaking English.
“Sí Se Puede” would be the mantra for their lives during the years living in Delano with the UFW, and it would be the foundation for their work after the union; my dad becoming a civil rights lawyer, and my mom working within the LA Unified School District for 30 years on behalf of English Learner students. But would there ever be that movement for me? Is our country so disenfranchised and the issues holding us back so vague that we couldn’t create a movement I’d be able to tell my children about?
I knew there’d always be a cause to get behind, a way to continue the work my parents had begun, but would I have a “Sí Se Puede” moment in time to look back on as my foundation?
On February 10th, 2007, I’d get my call. In Springfield Illinois, Barack Obama would challenge us to believe again in the country we could be. He’d remind us that we have more in common than we have differences. He’d say that his story, your story, and my story is part of the bigger American narrative, and that together ordinary people could accomplish extraordinary things. But most of all, he’d remind me of what my parents would tell me on their motivations for picking up and joining “La Causa”; that we have a stake in one another.
I’d find another link to my past at “Camp Obama” in LA, meeting a longtime organizer of the UFW named Marshall Ganz. After his inspirational introduction to the three day workshop, I walked over to him and thanked him for being with us, then, tell him that my parents were organizers in the UFW as well. Marshall would look down at my name tag and examine my last name. “Coleman….what’s your dad’s name?” “Marc”, I’d say as he’d say the name with me following my lips “Oh my god, you’re Marc Coleman’s son? Your father was the king of petition drives.” I spent the next three days enjoying the organizing styles that I’d heard about from my parents, where everyone was involved and everyone was in charge of teaching as well as learning. Listening to Marshall, I could easily have been in the organizing hall in Delano with poster board sized paper on the walls and organizing strategies and team building filling the air as Cesar rallies his troops to be ready for all that the growers would throw at them.
All this brings me to where we stand now. Last week I was at a volunteer meeting where I was reminded by a friend, Andrea, that we’d met at that first meeting nearly one year ago. “Has it really been a year?” I’d say, thinking maybe it’d just gotten started a month ago. We’d all stuck through it, despite polls, our day jobs, miscommunications, money, and all the other obstacles that have gotten in our way. While we’d never vocalized it so, “Sí Se Puede” was always the mantra of our group, and indeed this movement. It was there on day one, when we began with a candidate hardly anyone had heard of, with a name we’d have to help people pronounce, and seemingly steep competition in every aspect. Yet, the hope and the vision of this country coming together to finally solve the bigger problems we’d never been able to was both our mission and our motivation. It was never a question of if we could, it was how we’d do it.
Win or lose (and win we will), I’ve found a way to carry on “Sí Se Puede”. More than just the persistence or the urgency of those three words, it was about unity and humility – a gracefulness of knowing that there were better times ahead, we’d just have to find the path to get there.
Thanks for readying everyone, I’m off to Nevada to help in any way I can and delight in “Sí Se Puede” with the Culinary Union and the organizers in Las Vegas!
Dad and Cesar Chavez
Mom and Delores Huerta
Mom in front of the Huelga School
(Menno, Krish, Dorothy, Lolly, Darwin, Marsha, Marshall, Me)