Why I decided to like “De Colores”

Back in 1993, when they revised the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, the editors decided to include “De Colores.” I’ve always hated “De Colores.” It’s a kids’ song. Actually, I like a lot of kids’ songs, but to me “De Colores” sounded like something from that horrible kid show with the ridiculous purple dinosaur.

It didn’t help that I knew why they put “De Colores” in the hymnal. It was famous for being sung by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW). It’s great that they put in a union song, but if they’re going to put in a union song, then why not “Solidarity Forever”? Why not “Commonwealth of Toil”? Because, said my cynical self, “De Colores” could be passed off as just a kids’ song, or a song about racial harmony, instead of a song about stopping exploitation of workers. And the English-language verses in the hymnal aren’t even the ones sung by Cesar Chavez and the UFW.

Well, I’ve finally decided that I actually like “De Colores.” In part this was because I finally found a performance of it I liked: the very simple, straightforward version by José-Luis Orozco on Youtube. Then I found “The UFW: Songs and Stories Sung and Told by UFW Volunteers,” which has this story by Abby Rivera:

“I was familiar with ‘De Colores’ as a child…. I grew extremely weary of this song early on, until I discovered something uncanny about it. ‘Here we go again,’ I would complain to myself many times while making faces. Then we would begin to sing, and after the first few lines my entire demeanor and attitude would change. By the time the song was over, a total transformation of my spirit would occur, making me glad that I had sung it after all. It came to be my spiritual cleansing song, because the words reached deep into my soul and took me to another place where things are perfect, in harmony, of like mind and purpose….”

OK then. If Abby Rivera can find spiritual cleansing in this song, I guess I can too. But only if we sing the verse about the chickens.

P.S.: And if you want to turn it into an actual union song, here are two verses (in English) that I learned from Pat Wynne and the San Francisco Rocking Solidarity Labor Chorus:

“Cesar Chavez, Cesar Chavez devoted his life to the Farm Worker’s Union,
Cesar Chavez, Cesar Chavez dreamed of a good life for all campesinos,
Cesar Chavez, may your courage and vision live on in our hearts and our hands,
May your spirit endure and inspire us all to continue the work you began. (2x)

“Si se puede, si se puede means: yes, we can do it, if we all believe it,
Si se puede, Cesar said, “Si se puede,” and showed us the way to achieve it,
Cesar Chavez, may your courage and vision live on in our hearts and our hands,
May your spirit endure and inspire us all to continue the work you began. (2x)


After services this morning, a visiting Unitarian Universalist from St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, told me while he was in California he was going to visit Rosemary Matson. He told me that Rosemary Matson’s husband, Rev. Howard G. Matson, had been a chaplain to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and Rosemary herself continued to be involved.

On the Farmworker Movement Documentation Web site, I found more information about Rosemary and Howard Matson. Howard Matson helped found the National Farm Worker Ministry, an interfaith group supporting farmworkers. Together, Rosemary and Howard had created the Unitarian Universalist Migrant Ministry. Both of them worked with Cesar Chavez and other major figures in the struggle to gain rights for Mexican Americans. Rosemary Matson recorded this anecdote about Chavez:

I remember my unexpectedly providing lunch for Cesar and 15 of his delegation at our home in Berkeley. They were between meetings in Oakland. A trip to the deli for pans of lasagna sufficed for all except Cesar, who I found out was a vegetarian, drank carrot juice, and needed a nap.

We have just completed a “Justice General Assembly” focused on immigrants’ rights. Although Rosemary Matson received an honorary degree from Starr King School fo the Ministry, I cannot help but think we should be paying more attention to those Unitarian Universalists who have been working on this broad issue since the 1960s.

One possible litmus test for “UU culture”

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is in the middle of an attempt to cut the state budget, and at the moment he’s focusing on passage of a bill that will end collective bargaining for state employees. This action sparked protests and a Democratic walkout, and for four days now state workers and their supporters have basically taken over the Rotunda of the state capitol building.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I am fascinated by our religious response to this event. For anyone with a union connection, the events in Wisconsin will be seen as a watershed event — indeed, if Scott Walker’s bill passes, what’s happening in Wisconsin could be as important to union supporters as last year’s anti-immigration legislation in Arizona was to those working on immigration reform. But Unitarian Universalists have been basically ignoring what’s going on in Wisconsin; aside from a blog post by Patrick Murfin, I have seen no UU response.

It will be interesting to see how this develops. When Arizona passed anti-immigration legislation, Unitarian Universalists were furious, and a number went and got arrested in protests. However, Unitarian Universalists generally do not show much support when it comes to unions and worker’s rights. If Scott Walker’s bill passes (as it is likely to do), I do not think we will see a massive upwelling of support among Unitarian Universalists for collective bargaining rights.

This, I believe, reveals something about what Chris Walton and UU World magazine have been terming “Unitarian Universalist culture”. While Unitarian Universalists have a strong tendency to support politically liberal causes, they do not support all politically liberal causes equally, and unionism is one cause that gets little or limited support. Because of this, I predict that we will not be seeing prophetic statements from the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association condemning Scott Walker; I also predict that the Standing on the Side Of Love campaign will not start including love for union workers the way it included love for immigrants in the wake of Arizona.

I’m fascinated by the way Unitarian Universalists pick and choose among politically liberal causes, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on why this might be so. Specifically, why don’t we support unionism (with the exception of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers union, but then maybe that was more about immigrants than about unions)? Is it because our strong strain of individualism is repelled by collective bargaining? Is it because so many of us are members of the managerial class that we tend to distrust unions? Or what? Maybe this will help better define what “UU culture” really is.