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Latino groups commemorating César Chávez Day through activism, mobilization

"We need to continue elevating the realities of our community, especially farmworkers that are the worst paid, working in the worst conditions," said a Latina legal advocate.
César Chávez Speaks At Rally
César Chávez speaks at a rally in Coachella, Calif., in 1977.Cathy Murphy / Getty Images file

Latino-led and nonprofit organizations are marking the life of the late labor and civil rights champion César Chávez on what would have been his 95th birthday.

As Covid-19 restrictions ease across the country, groups have been commemorating his legacy of activism by holding events and mobilizing crowds while focusing on several issues, from farmworker and labor rights to legal and environmental issues.

In 2014 President Barack Obama designated March 31 — Chávez's birthday — as César Chávez Day, a national holiday. In California it's a state holiday.

Almost six decades ago, Chávez co-founded the National Farm Workers’ Association, which later became the United Farm Workers, or UFW, after he drew national attention to the plight of farmworkers, leading to a nationwide boycott of grapes to protest worker conditions and a 340-mile march from Delano, California to to the State Capitol in Sacramento.

Continuing Chávez's mission, the UFW is holding events across California on Thursday to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act, which aims to give farmworkers more choices when they vote in their union elections without feeling pressure from supervisors.

Other groups have been honoring Chávez’s legacy through mobilization.

The TODEC Legal Center, a California-based Latino legal advocacy group, has been holding a week of action, including hosting celebrations for farmworkers and sending youth leaders to lobby for immigration reform and farmworker rights.

“My parents were organizers with César, so being brought up in that movement, it continues to create a community conscience in us," said Luz Gallegos, 48, the group's executive director. “We need to continue elevating the realities of our community, especially farmworkers that are the worst paid, working in the worst conditions.”

TODEC, which has provided free legal and other services to Latino and immigrant families for almost 40 years, sent a team of 12 members ages 14 to 20 to Washington to lobby members of Congress to support farmworker rights and immigration reform.

The trip granted young leaders an opportunity to fly to the nation's capital and represent their farmworker parents.

“It’s a long-term investment in the continuity of the work of TODEC and to continue to create lifelong leaders that don’t forget where they come from — wherever it is that they land in life, they always come back and give back to those that don’t have privilege," said Gallegos, who decades ago went through TODEC’s youth leadership pipeline.

Monserrat Gomes, 20, one of the beneficiaries of the trip, said she will use the opportunity to push for immigration reform.

“A lot of them [migrants] contribute to our country, a lot of them contribute to our economics, and a lot of it is not noticed or, [on] other occasions, it’s taken for granted,” Gomes said.

In Austin, Texas, a coalition of Latino-serving organizations held its first César Chávez Day celebration in two years last weekend.

The event, ¡Sí Se Puede! César Chávez March & Day of Action!, included a one-mile march to honor Chávez's legacy, live music, guest speakers, artists and small businesses.

Susana Almanza during the ¡Sí Se Puede! César Chávez March & Day of Action!
Susana Almanza, fifth from left, with children holding baskets of lettuce and grapes to symbolize the boycotts and struggles at the ¡Sí Se Puede! César Chávez March & Day of Action! event Saturday.Charisma Gamez

One of those spearheading the event was Susana Almanza, the executive director of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, or PODER, a social and environmental justice organization.

Almanza, who is also on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, said the celebration helped address local issues affecting communities of color in east Austin, from the environmental and health impacts of a proposed tank farm, or fuel storage facility, to the price of rail passes and how it affects working-class families.

“He’s a role model for everybody in the world, because he was a person that fought against oppression and exploitation,” Almanza said about Chávez. “He took on the powerful in defense of the powerless, and that’s what PODER does.”

An early preview of the redesigned Oval Office awaiting President Joseph Biden at the White House, on January 20 in Washington, DC.
A sculpted bust of César Chávez on a table seen during an early preview of the redesigned Oval Office awaiting President Joe Biden at the White House on Jan. 20, 2021.Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

President Joe Biden issued a proclamation Wednesday marking César Chávez Day, saying, "We stand on the shoulders of César Chávez and carry forward his fight to advance the dignity of working people and fulfill the promise of America for all Americans."

Biden called for Congress to pass legislation to ensure better legal and labor conditions for farmworkers — and he said in the proclamation that when he became president, "I proudly placed a bust of César Chávez in the Oval Office — a constant reminder of the enduring values he embodied, the vision of freedom he fought for, and his commitment to social justice and equal dignity that we must uphold each and every day."

The bust drew widespread national attention. “I’m very excited and honored that it’s something he chose as a symbol in his office,” Julie Chávez Rodríguez, a White House official who is Chavez’s granddaughter, said at the time. “It’s an honor and a real tribute to the community.”

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