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Cesar Chavez Day: Honoring The Latino Civil Rights Leader By Continuing The Fight For Justice

Posted: 03/30/2012 5:32 pm Updated: 03/31/2012 5:05 pm

Cesar Chavez

When Barack Obama campaigned to be the nation's 44th president, he used the simple mantra, "Yes We Can" -- a translation of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez's chant, "Si se puede."

Now, nearly four years after the presidential election, Obama's paying homage to the man whose words helped him win office, decreeing Saturday, March 31st of 2012, the 85th anniversary of the civil rights icon's birthday, Cesar Chavez Day.

The civil rights leader, who fought for fair wages and humane treatment for California's farm workers, also championed principles of nonviolence through boycotts, fasts, and marches. In conjunction with Dolores Huerta, Chavez founded the United Farm Workers of America, an organization devoted to defending the rights of farmhands and field workers across the country.

Earlier this week, the White House honored ten local leaders who "exemplify Cesar Chavez's core values," inviting the activists, farmworkers, and professors to speak at a panel called, "Champions of Change," hosted by HuffPost LatinoVoices blogger, Viviana Hurtado.

One of those "champions" was Rogelio Lona, a farm worker, activist, and community organizer who worked in the fields of California for more than 47 years.

Unbearable working conditions lead Lona to join Chavez's UFW in 1972.

"We were treated as slaves, we did not have any representation in society, we were discriminated against and there were neither benefits nor labor protections," Lona wrote in a blog on the White House website.

Lona said that he accepted the award on behalf of all of those working in America's fields, and was adamant that he will never be done fighting.

"Rogelio, the struggle will never end, we must always be prepared,” Lona recalls Chavez telling him.

Many of the panelists that spoke on Thursday focused on the importance of placing Cesar Chavez's legacy in a modern context. A few of the activists said Cesar Chavez's words should be remembered in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform, the Dream Act, and the on-going struggle to end harsh state immigration laws like those in Arizona and Alabama.

Activists in Tucson, Arizona say that Chavez's fight against discrimination is especially alive in their city. After the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) banned the city's Mexican-American studies program, organizers say that the annual Cesar Chavez march would no longer be held at a local high school because of further censorship from the school district.

According to Laura Dent, an organizer of the Arizona Cesar Chavez Holiday Coalition, the TUSD stipulated that there could be no mention to the elimination of Tucson's Mexican-American studies program in order for it to be held at Pueblo High Magnet School, where it has been held for more than a decade.

"So the Chavez Coalition decided that with that kind of level of censorship, we would just move the staging area of the event," Dent told NPR.

Viviana Hurtado, the moderator of the White House's commemorative panel, told The Huffington Post that she was able to chat briefly with Cesar Chavez's son about what advice his father would give his fellow Latinos and civil rights activists in a modern context.

According to Hurtado, Chavez's son believes his father would say, "Don't just be frustrated with the situation ahead of you. Get up and do something. Take action."

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  • Cesar Chavez

    Cesar Chavez, a first generation American of Mexican descent, is remembered as a pivotal figure in the arenas of labor and civil rights. Chavez came from a family of migrant farmers who labored in the fields of California. After experiencing first-hand the hardships of farm workers in the U.S., Chavez took his savings -- <a href="" target="_hplink">a total of $1,200</a> -- and founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). Under the direction of Chavez, the UFW was able to <a href="" target="_hplink">achieve many advancements for farm workers</a>, including negotiating the first union contracts requiring rest periods, toilets in the fields, clean drinking water, hand washing facilities. It won medical benefits for farm workers and the first pension plan for retired farm workers. Amid his concerns for the health of farm workers because of all of the pesticides in use at the time, Chavez went on hunger strikes to protest the use of these chemicals. In 1968, a 25-day hunger strike helped earn <a href="" target="_hplink"> better pay and medical benefits for farmers</a>. Chavez's legacy lives through his hard work and example. His rallying cry, "Si Se Puede" ("It Can Be Done"), is still heard at political events around the nation and was <a href="" target="_hplink">the source of President Obama's 2008 'Yes We Can' motto</a>. Chavez believed that change was possible through hard work, commitment and personal sacrifice. Senator Robert F. Kennedy described Cesar Chavez as <a href="" target="_hplink">"one of the heroic figures of our time."</a> Cesar Chavez passed away in 1993.

  • Dolores Huerta

    Dolores Huerta, who's originally from New Mexico, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, and then served as the first vice president the United Farm Workers. Raised by her mother in the San Joaquin Valley in California, she helped the family manage a restaurant and hotel which <a href="" target="_hplink">sometimes took in migrant farm workers at no charge.</a> Huerta's role as an activist cannot be underestimated. She not only headed negotiations with corporations and landowners which led to improved conditions for farm workers, she also was instrumental in the passage of various laws which directly improved the lives of Latinos in California and across the country. As a fearless advocate for civil rights, Huerta has been <a href="" target="_hplink">arrested twenty-two times</a>, and was severley beaten by police during a 1988 protest against George H.W. Bush's candidacy for U.S. President. The dozens of prizes Huerta received included the <a href="" target="_hplink">2002 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship</a>, which recognizes those who've "challenged the status quo through distinctive, courageous, imaginative and socially responsible work of significance."

  • Joan Baez

    Joan Baez, the American singer/songwriter and '60's counter-culture leader is of Mexican descent. Her father was born in Puebla, Mexico. Baez is considered an icon of the human rights movements and 1960's activism. She was an active participant in the the civil rights struggle, raised her voice in opposition to the Vietnam War and the death penalty, and has been a passionate supporter of gay rights. She's protested against the war in Iraq and has rallied in favor of environmental causes. Her music has always been charged with social and political messages. Baez was close to other Latino activists. <a href="" target="_hplink">In 1966, she stood in the fields alongside Cesar Chavez</a> and migrant farm workers striking for fair wages. <a href="" target="_hplink">In 1981, Baez did a five-week concert tour in Latin America,</a> where she aimed to collect facts and raise awareness about human rights abuses in the region. Baez has recently spoken out against anti-immigrant rhetoric prevalent in political arena and against the spread of <a href="" target="_hplink">harsh anti-immigration laws</a> in the U.S. She says that "<a href="" target="_hplink">to be a non-welcoming society just seems bizarre to me</a>." That most Americans citizens wouldn't do the jobs or work under the conditions that immigrant farm laborers are forced to endure.

  • Bert Corona

    Humberto Noe "Bert" Corona was an American civil rights leader who's views on politics were shaped from a very young age: his father was a commander during the Mexican Revolution. Corona died at the age of 82 in 2001 and is remembered as a significant figure in civil rights and labor circles; his accomplishments have been <a href="" target="_hplink">compared with those of Cesar Chavez</a>. In 1938, he joined the charismatic labor organizer Luisa Moreno in the League of Spanish-Speaking People, one of the first national organizations for Mexican Americans, arguing that undocumented workers should be organized rather than deported. "That stance led him to the last great organizing effort of his life, the establishment in 1951 of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, or National Mexican Brotherhood," <a href="" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times. </a> "Bert saw <em>Mexicanos</em> in the United States, not just as a people suffering racial and national discrimination, but as a working-class community, exploited for their labor," <a href="" target="_hplink">said Nativo Lopez</a>, who helped Corona organize the Hermandad Mexicana. He also helped form the Mexican American Political Association, one of the California's oldest and most influential Latino political organizations. Corona's biggest accomplishment was found in his unparalleled courage, when he stood up to defend the rights of undocumented immigrants <a href="" target="_hplink">at a time few people would talk about them</a>.

  • Ruben Salazar

    Rubén Salazar was a journalist of Mexican descent; born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, he later moved to El Paso, Texas. Salazar was one of the best known Latino journalists of his time, influencing the careers and perspectives of many who followed him. "Rubén Salazar really had no equal in American journalism in that he was a Latino working in general circulation media, general audience newspapers, at a time when very few of us were found there", Felix Gutierrez, a journalism professor in Southern California, <a href="" target="_hplink"> told</a>. Salazar became an important figure in the Chicano Movement in the 60s, chronicling the <a href="" target="_hplink">unjust treatment of Chicano activists</a>. As a journalist he was also vocal about other controversial topics of the time, including <a href=",0,1707774,full.story#february06" target="_hplink">the Vietnam War, police brutality and corruption</a>. Salazar dies in 1970 while covering the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War, a massive antiwar march that drew some 30,000 people to East Los Angeles. He was struck in the head by a tear gas projectile fired by a sheriff's deputy. Such was the stature and influence of Salazar, that despite evidence that his death was caused by "<a href="" target="_hplink">tactical blunders</a>," for over 40 years many have questioned whether it was in fact a conspiracy to silence his inquisitive mind and powerful pen. This is a photograph of "Death of Rubén Salazar," an oil canvas by Frank Romero honoring the journalist's life and condemning his accidental death. <a href="" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by cliff1066</a>

  • Harry Pachon

    Harry Pachon, who died on Nov. 4, 2011, was the son of Colombian immigrants and a scholar-activist who helped advance the cause of Latino immigrants in the United States. Since 1993, Pachon served as President of the <a href="" target="_hplink">Tomas Rivera Policy Institute</a>, a Latino think tank based at the University of Southern California. As head of the Institute, he drew national attention to Latinos issues, particularly in the areas of bilingual education, immigration and political engagement. "The entire nation -- and especially the 50 million Latinos in the United States -- has lost a true giant in civil rights advocacy," said Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund <a href=",0,2144395.story" target="_hplink">in a statement following the Pachon's passing</a>. Pachon's work was important in highlighting the differences among Latinos and bringing forth the idea that Latinos have diverse and evolving political stances. "Hispanics are up for grabs; they cannot be pigeonholed," he told <a href="" target="_hplink">United Press International in 2003, </a> after the Institute published a survey which showed the diversity of Latino voting patterns.

  • Raul Yzaguirre

    Raul Yzaguirre was born in the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas to Mexican-American parents at a time of clear prejudice against Latinos, who lived under a curfew and were subjected to lynchings and other violence. A long-time leader in the Hispanic community, Yzaguirre served as President and CEO of the <a href="" target="_hplink">National Council of La Raza for 30 years</a>, until 2004. During that time the group grew into the largest Latino advocacy organization in the country, with over 35,000 members and 300 affiliates in over 40 states. Yzaguirre used his national profile to directly engage and challenge the highest reaches of power to advocate for improved conditions and opportunities for Latinos. He <a href="" target="_hplink">took issue with President Carter's immigration proposals</a>, President George H.W. Bush's affirmative action position, and President Clinton's welfare reform law. Yzaguirre is also known for his opposition to groups that called for English to be the official language of the United States. He famously said in 1990, "<a href="" target="_hplink">U.S. English is to Hispanics as the Ku Klux Klan is to blacks</a>." In September 2010, Yzaguirre was confirmed as United States Ambassador to the Dominican Republic. He is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • Maria Elena Durazo

    Maria Elena Durazo the daughter of Mexican immigrants, graduated from St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, and earned a law degree from the People's College of Law in 1985. For years she worked in the hotel workers union, starting at UNITE -HERE Local 11 in Los Angeles -- leading it to becoming an active and influential political player in southern California -- and culminating as Executive Vice President of UNITE-HERE International. In 2006, she was elected executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. The Federation represents workers in every key industry, including transportation/goods movement, entertainment/media, janitorial and hospitality services, education and construction as well as public sectors and retail. In 2010, she was <a href="" target="_hplink">elected as Executive Vice President of the national AFL-CIO Executive Council</a>. During demonstrations in 2011 as part of Occupy LA, Durazo spoke about the importance of labor unions and for workers to be treated with respect. "Men and women have a right to retire with dignity and not have their pensions stolen from them," she said, <a href="" target="_hplink">according to LA Activist</a>. "Everybody has a right to a good paying job, because we work hard for that job."