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Honoring César Chávez, Calling For National Holiday

Vida En El Valle, News Feature, Juan Esparza Posted: Mar 31, 2009

Fresno, Calif--Ever since farmworker leader César Estrada Chávez died in 1993, supporters have launched campaigns to honor him with a U.S. Postal Service stamp, a holiday for workers in 10 states (including California), and having numerous schools, parks and roads named in his name.

The big prize for many, however, remains a national holiday.

Thanks to President Barack Obama's 98-word comment on the campaign trail last year, a national coalition hoping to clear the various hurdles needed to have March 31 declared a national holiday believes it is closer to that goal.

A year ago March 31, Obama said: "Chávez left a legacy as an educator, environmentalist, and a civil rights leader. And his cause lives on. As farmworkers and laborers across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages, we find strength in what César Chávez accomplished so many years ago. And we should honor him for what he's taught us about making America a stronger, more just, and more prosperous nation. That's why I support the call to make César Chávez's birthday a national holiday. It's time to recognize the contributions of this American icon to the ongoing efforts to perfect our union."

That was music to supporters like Dr. Ysaura Bernal-Enríquez of the Anthropology/Ethnic Studies Department at California State University, Stanislaus.

"I absolutely believe we should have a national holiday to honor César Chávez. César was and will continue to be a hero at the level of Mohandas Ghandi and Rev. Martin Luther King in promoting social justice and dignity for farmworkers and all the workers in the world through non-violent methods," said Bernal-Enríquez, who is on the organizing committee for the Chávez celebration at the Turlock university.

"He is a known figure throughout the world. Although here in the United States where he fought most of his battles, not many people know of him, especially the youth who did not witness from the 70s through the 90s. Also, César was Chicano, meaning from Mexican descent, part of the biggest "minority" in the United States, but we Hispanics are invisible to many Americans."

Bernal-Enríquez said a Chávez holiday would give Latinos "the importance we deserve as members of the North American society."

The effort to get a national holiday began on Aug. 18, 2000 when then-California Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation authored by state Sen. Richard Polanco making the United Farm Workers founder's birthday a state holiday. Since then, California has been joined by Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New México, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Rhode Island.

Julie Chávez Rodríguez was 15 years old when her grandfather died. Today, she is the programs director for the César Chávez Foundation. A national holiday, she said, "would give us an opportunity to educate current and future generations about his life and his work, in particular the values by which he lived his life.

Chávez Rodríguez said a national holiday would not be "an opportunity not just for folks to get the day off, but to learn the history of Chávez, to be actively involved."

The service learning component of the Chávez holiday in California, she said, is important "to inspire people into action." Most students use the day to clean out parks, or to provide community services.

Evalina Alarcón, national coordinator of the César E. Chávez National Holiday Coalition, agrees that a national holiday will solidify Chávez contributions to the country and make more people aware of his call for community service.

"A national holiday will preserve César's legacy so that all the generations to come will be inspired to dedicate themselves to justice, workers' rights, peace, environmental justice and non violence," said Alarcón.

Alarcón a college student when she got involved in the UFW-led boycott of grapes. She believes Obama's support will be crucial in getting a national holiday.

"President Obama has said on numerous occasions in the past that César Chávez was one of his heroes who inspired him," said Alarcón. "And yes, of course, President Obama's support helps draw even wider support.

"Clearly, President Obama was familiar with César Chávez's inspiring words '¡Sí Se Puede!' (Yes We Can!). Those are words that helped make history in our nation for farmworkers and in electing the first African American president."

It took 15 years to establish the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (President Ronald Reagan signed the bill in 1983. The first holiday legislation was introduced four days after King was assassinated in 1968). Chávez holiday supporters realize their effort will not be easy.

That is why the coalition has launched a website and a national campaign encouraging people to lobby their federal representatives for support of a Chávez holiday. Among the campaign supporters are Los Ángeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, city councils in Los Ángeles and Philadelphia, musician Carlos Santana, and actors Edward James Olmos, Martín Sheen and George López.

Santana, Sheen and Olmos are national co-chairs for the campaign.

"It's supremely important that a day be selected to honor the life of Mr. César Chávez for his quality of service to all humanity," said Santana on the website www.cesarholiday.org. "His supreme cry of '¡Sí Se Puede!' will forever resonate as a positive motivator as words of light."

Sheen said a national Chávez holiday "would secure his profound legacy, while future generations may scarce believe that such a man existed."

"He, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and others understood the meaning of non violent social change and used it to elevate the human condition," said Olmos.

Chávez, who would have celebrated his 82 birthday on March 31, established the United Farm Workers in 1964 in Delano. He successfully organized grape pickers and negotiated the country's first labor contracts for farmworkers.

Julie Chávez Rodríguez said supporters of a national Chávez holiday can visit www.chavezfoundation.org or www.ufw.org to sign a petition in support of the effort.

"Another thing they can do is write to their Congressmember and say that in honor of César Chávez this is important to do," she said.

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