By Mariasofia Corona and Liset Perez
March 31 marks the birth of labor and civil rights leader Cesar E. Chavez. On this day, people across the United States and beyond will be celebrating Chavez’s life work.
On April 23, 1993, Chavez passed way in his sleep in San Luis, Ariz. A funeral service was held in Delano, Calif., where Chavez had planted the first seeds of the United Farm Workers (UFW).
Chavez is remembered as a crusader for nonviolent social change, a spiritual figure and an environmentalist. In commemoration of his life, communities across the nation have named schools, parks and streets in his honor.
A group in Fresno organized to rename Kings Canyon Street to Cesar Chavez Boulevard. The name change did not happen in large part due to the reality that the corporations, employers and agencies he worked so hard to reform also call the Central Valley home. Nonetheless, out of this effort, a committee was formed that has since reconvened annually to organize
a community celebration to commemorate the legacy of Chavez.
The committee’s organizers settled on the name “Comite Cesar Chavez” (Cesar Chavez Committee) and took the first syllables of each word to form the acronym Co-Ce-Cha, meaning harvest. The committee has always been a mix of community members, activists and college students dedicated to grassroots organizing.
This year, the committee is dedicating the march to the health and well-being of our community and calling for dignified job opportunities that provide healthcare and living wages, as well as sustainable healthy environments with accessible parks, safe communities and environments free of contamination.
March with us on Saturday, March 27, to celebrate the legacy of Chavez and show your local representatives that we want to and can make a difference in the health and well-being of our community. The gathering to march begins at 9 a.m. at Holmes Playground, and we will march through southeast Fresno neighborhoods. The march will end back at Holmes Playground, where local musicians and performers will showcase our diverse community.
Co-Ce-Cha is also hosting a community fair, at which local organizations and services will be on hand to help inform and support people. Come and learn how the legacy of Chavez has inspired youth and adults to continue fighting for social justice. The event is free of charge and includes food and prizes.
For those not familiar with Cesar E. Chavez, he was a co-founder of the UFW and dedicated his life to fighting for farmworkers’ labor rights and civil rights, especially of Mexican-Americans. Chavez was born in 1927 on a small farm near Yuma, Ariz., that his grandfather homesteaded during the 1880s. During the Depression, the family lost their farm as did countless others, and to subsist they worked as migrant laborers across the fields of the Southwest. As a child and young adult, Chavez worked as a farm laborer and was exposed to the hardships and injustices of the farmworker life.
In 1946, Chavez joined the U.S. Navy and served in the western Pacific in the aftermath of World War II. After serving in the Navy, Chavez returned home and married Helen Fabela, whom he had met while working in the vineyards of the Central Valley.
In 1952, Chavez joined the Community Services Organization (CSO), a prominent Chicano civil rights group. As a community organizer with the CSO, Chavez coordinated voter registration drives, organized against racial and economic discrimination, and eventually became the group’s national director.
Despite this success, Chavez was still troubled by the exploitive position farmworkers lived under, a disproportionate number of whom were Mexican-Americans. Chavez believed the harsh, discriminatory conditions that farmworkers endured needed a focused labor movement.
Chavez decided to resign from CSO and form, along with driven collaborators such as Dolores Huerta and Jessie de la Cruz, the United Farm Workers union. His sacrifice of leaving steady employment gave fruit to a massive labor and civil rights movement.
Chavez led successful strikes and boycotts that resulted in the first industry-wide labor contracts in the history of U.S. agriculture. Through the UFW, Chavez worked for fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits and humane living conditions.
In 1975, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was created in direct response to the organizing and pressure from unions and advocates that included the UFW. The California Agricultural Labor Act remains the only law in the nation that protects farmworkers and their right to unionize.
Chavez believed in nonviolence taking from the spiritual philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. He based his organizing and demonstrations on the values of nonviolence and turned to fasts, boycotts, strikes and pilgrimages to spread the message of social justice.
In 1968 and 1972, Chavez fasted for 25 days to support the farm labor movement. At the age of 61, he fasted for 36 days to emphasize the negative effects of pesticides on farmworkers, their children and entire communities (see chavezfoundation.org and UFW.org).
These are tough times, and many people are struggling to earn decent wages and maintain healthy, free-of-violence lives. Major areas of our well-being are in danger of further cuts and the continued lack of attention by politicians who are responsive to campaign contributing corporations and top-dollar lobbyists.
The healthcare reform debate on Capitol Hill is failing to question the corporate business behind our illness. Healthcare reform should involve grassroots organizations in community-level changes that include access to healthy food, safe parks, inspirational and innovative programs for youth, the creation of decent local jobs, child care, and mental and spiritual support.
The use of immigrants as a scapegoat for the corporate economic decline derails us from the work of fostering community well-being and instead adds further violent fear in surveying and traumatizing families through the separation of incarceration and deportation.
It has been two years since the community became enthusiastic about the Obama campaign of “hope,” “change” and “yes we can,” which translates to Chavez’s motto of “si se puede.” The community is still waiting for the “change” that was promised, and the “hope” once conferred on this historical president is dwindling that he will make the right decisions to curb the power of corporations over our communities.
Everyone is welcome to participate and help in organizing the annual Cesar Chavez celebration. For more information on how to participate, e-mail email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.