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Viva Chávez

NCR Staff

Once again California, first in freeways and orange groves, leads the nation -- this time in honoring the life of the country’s foremost Hispanic civil rights leader with a state holiday.

State employees will get a paid day off this year, on Friday, March 30, in honor of César Chávez, leader of the United Farm Workers union. Legislation creating a holiday on the Monday or Friday nearest his March 31 birthday was approved by the California legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis last summer.

“When children learn about the great life of Martin Luther King, Jr., they will also learn about the great life of César Chávez,” said Davis when he signed the California legislation on Aug. 18, 2000. “With an unconquerable spirit and undeniable cause, Chávez led a labor movement which set into motion such powerful, sweeping changes that the impact is still being felt today.”

The law creates what is described as the nation’s first paid state holiday honoring a Latino or a labor union figure. Texas and Arizona offer an optional holiday in honor of Chávez. New Mexico is considering establishing the last Saturday of March as “César Chávez Day.” Legislation is under consideration in Colorado and Wisconsin as well.

As Davis penned the bill into law, supporters sang “De Colores,” the upbeat and melodic UFW rallying song.

Previous California law let state workers take the day off as “César Chávez Day,” but they had to use personal holiday time to get paid.

According to new state guidelines, California schools will have the option of commemorating Chávez with a “Day of Service and Learning.” At participating schools, a state-funded curriculum will be used in the morning to teach students about Chávez and the history of the farm labor movement in the United States. In the afternoon, students will perform community service.

“We wanted to be able to provide young people knowledge about César Chávez, who he was, what his philosophy was, but also a way to practice it,” said United Farm Workers president, Arturo Rodriguez, who pushed for the educational component as a way to keep the Chávez legacy alive.

After much debate, California Democrats unanimously supported the legislation, which was initiated by Sen. Richard Polanco, a Los Angeles Democrat. Many Republicans, primarily from the Central Valley where Chávez is still a controversial figure, voted against it or didn’t vote at all. Opponents criticized the cost of the holiday.

César Chávez was born in 1927 near Yuma, Ariz., into a family of migrant laborers. He and his wife raised eight children on a farm worker’s low wages. Inspired by community organizer Saul Alinksy, Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 to help address farm laborers’ suffering. This organization later became the UFW, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. In 1965 Chávez led a nationwide boycott against the state’s grape growers, who refused to sign contracts with their workers. Millions of Americans honored the boycott, and in 1970 the growers gave in.

Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Chávez was an advocate of nonviolent protest. He fought for better working conditions by staging hunger strikes and organizing marches and boycotts. Chávez inspired a generation of Hispanics and helped others understand the plight of migrant workers who in the 1960s earned barely $1,300 a year in the $4 billion farm industry. His union’s efforts vastly improved conditions for all U.S. agricultural workers. In 1993 Chávez died at age 66 while preparing to fight a lawsuit against the union filed in San Luis, Calif., a small farming town near the Mexican border.

Even after his cause was adopted by politicians and Hollywood stars, Chávez lived simply. As recently as the late 1980s, he did not own a house or car and estimated his income at about $900 a month. His salary as union president equaled the salary of a farm laborer.

Msgr. George Higgins was the moving force in the Catholic church’s support for Chávez and his union movement. Higgins, who served on the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Farm Labor in the ’60s and ’70s, told NCR: “I am very pleased about this. César Chávez was not so much a charismatic figure as he was a deeply religious man, and it showed.”

Oakland mayor and former governor Jerry Brown said Chávez was “the most important labor leader since World War II.” U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called him “one of the great pioneers for civil rights and human rights of our century.”

“He was a common man who did uncommon things,” said Rodriguez. “Even people who weren’t around when César Chávez was alive will recognize now what he did. To have someone in our ethnic group recognized like this, it brings us a lot of pride.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001