I was raised in the areas encompassing the proposed Cesar Chavez Street. Due to the underlying motives of the opposition, I find it necessary to respond to the misinformation put forth by a member of the 1 Community Compact, Rev. B.T. Lewis. His generality that the City of Fresno’s actions “to eliminate the names of existing streets is divisive and a travesty for our history” lacks merit and appears quite self-serving, especially as he seems to know little of the area’s history.
It’s hard to understand why Rev. Lewis would suddenly develop such a deep-rooted concern for these streets, especially given that they’ve been neglected over the years.
I am no stranger to the history of California Street, Ventura Avenue or Kings Canyon Road. During my youth, my family lived in West Fresno, initially on B Street, followed by a period on California Street and eventually on Poppy Street, one block off of California Street. California Street stretched to the east past Edison High School and to the west, crossing the area where my family would reside for several years.
Of the three streets, California was always a major part of my early years, including shining shoes at the local bars and walking to Irwin Junior High School and to church with my family on Sundays. Several cousins lived in or around the neighborhoods bordering Ventura Avenue/Kings Canyon Road, who we frequently visited.
In the 1950s, I resided with my family for a few years at Edison Manor, which is a government housing project located on California Street. During those years, the Mexican community was the dominant population in or around California Street and, for that matter, Ventura Avenue/Kings Canyon Road.
For decades, the Mexican communities that lived in the surrounding communities were and continue to be the dominant customers of the local businesses. The Mexican presence in these areas has existed since their inception, and we’ve shared the community with such groups as Russians, Germans, Asians, Armenians and, eventually, African Americans.
Edison High School at one time had several plaques on its front lawn, facing California Street, eulogizing the names of soldiers killed during World War II. All the names were of Mexican American students who attended Edison. Among those honored was my uncle, who was killed during the Normandy invasion at only 19 years old. These youth were from farmworker backgrounds.
The plaques are no longer there, and no one seems to know anything about them. Where’s the 1 Community Compact commitment to “preserving the unique history and heritage” of West Fresno?
My grandfather settled in West Fresno in the early 1900s. The surrounding areas have always attracted Mexican immigrants that primarily worked in farm labor. In fact, the earliest settlers of Fresno included Mexicans, which reflects the name, Fresno, meaning “ash tree” in Spanish. For that matter, both Ventura and California are Spanish words.
For many years, large numbers of field buses daily lined the streets of Chinatown attracting hundreds of workers, the vast majority Mexican. Fresno was overwhelmingly a segregated city at the time, resulting in African Americans having a separate location for field workers outside of Chinatown on Tulare and C streets. These buses were also always full. Sadly, throughout most of Fresno’s early history there were few African Americans within the city’s limits.
Given this history, I can’t help but be confused by Rev. Lewis’s statement that our community is intelligent enough to understand the difference between honoring Cesar Chavez and choosing streets that have historical significance. It’s hard to truly understand what he is seeking to say as “Chavez” continues to be one of the more “historical figures” of the San Joaquin Valley. For most of the nation, he is the only historical figure they recognize from our area.
Perhaps, it might be of value to remind the reverend that Christian love is leaping outside of the narrow confines of one’s own needs and desires and embracing the other’s good for the other’s sake. As a man of God, it would serve him well to take a moment to truly reflect upon the history of Fresno through the eyes of others that have been here from the start, especially those who have worked the soil, so he can understand what is actually good for others.
Even more important, for decades the vast majority of residents of West Fresno worked in agriculture especially during the early years. These workers included African Americans, many of whom were subject to abusive conditions, for example, pesticides, snakes, spiders, water, no toilets and low pay, lacking most of the protections normally given to regular workers. Both groups shared this experience.
Cesar Chavez changed this abuse, giving field workers a voice, the fundamental right to unionize and to collective bargaining and, significantly, giving them respectability. His leadership had a far-reaching impact and extended to all groups, especially in the San Joaquin Valley where most residents worked in agriculture.
Let’s be clear. Major changes have occurred due to the sacrifice and struggle of field workers, whose leader was Cesar Chavez. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, such as the Kennedys and labor and religious leaders throughout the country, have honored Chavez for his leadership, commitment and achievements.
There’s a reason why we now have a holiday commemorating his contributions. He’s known for his unquestionable commitment to nonviolence and his willingness to sacrifice his own health and well-being through numerous hunger strikes that eventually resulted in his early death.
His funeral brought together more than 30,000 people from throughout the United States in a matter of days after his death to pay their respects. They represented celebrities, elected officials, dignitaries and workers across all trades, walking hand in hand with the poorest members of our community. I walked with my daughters with Jesse Jackson on one side and Jimmy Smits on the other.
As for the business owners who opposed the name change, it should suffice to stress that the vast majority of their clientele are still primarily Mexican immigrants and, most likely, farmworkers. Thus, it is disturbing and highly suspect as to why they are so opposed, especially as they are also beneficiaries of Chavez’s campaign to improve the working conditions of farmworkers. Perhaps, some type of campaign should be instituted to educate their customers on their opposition to the name change. It’s only right that they should spend their earnings in businesses that truly appreciate their patronage.
The next time you drive down the highway in your air-conditioned car and see field workers in temperatures surpassing 100 degrees, remember that someone took the initiative to advocate for them and eventually died building a union to protect their interest. Due to Chavez’s efforts, most farmers now respect the dignity of farmworkers and the state government respects their right to collective bargaining.
Naming a street after Chavez, whether Kings Canyon Road or California Street, is not only the politically and historically correct thing to do but also represents just a small tribute to a man whose life’s efforts were to make this world a better place to live. Just as Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez is worthy of this small tribute. Dr. King would be the first to recognize this gesture.