In the spring of 1993, I made my first trip to San Francisco. Like any tourist fresh off the plane, I was eager to explore the city and soak up as much of the culture as possible
As I wandered near city hall on that cold, gray day, I noticed that all the flags were flying at half-mast, and I asked a few people what the occasion was. When people said Cesar Chavez had died, they were surprised that I did not know. As a native of California, I knew the name but not much about this extraordinary American.
My education about Chavez came in small waves over the period of many years. As a child, I knew he had something to do with migrant workers, and that he was Mexican American. My elementary school was close to the flowers, fields, and green houses of the north-county coastal area of San Diego. Many of my classmates were the sons and daughters of migrant workers, and I played with them the same as I would have played with any other child.
When I was in college, I met a woman who was working on creating a national Cesar Chavez holiday. This is when my education truly began. I had been completely unaware that Chavez believed in equality for all people, including the LGBT community.
In the 1980s Chavez was holding a rally with farm workers in San Francisco. At the end of his protest, Chavez told the protestors that he was going to join a rally that was being organized by advocates of gay and lesbian rights. He invited the farm workers to join him, and many of them did. Chavez was often found at gay and lesbian pride parades, and according to his wife Helen, "[H]e understood that you can't demand equality for your own people while tolerating discrimination against anyone else."
Chavez believed that if any minority is oppressed, we all are oppressed. I found it amazing that Chavez ever included the LGBT community; I had previously envisioned him as a well-intentioned organizer of migrant farm workers, not the man he truly was.
This is when I began to learn the spirit of his teachings and the power of his political voice. It was December 2011 when I was honored to spend Christmas dinner with members of his immediate family. As a former Navy reservist, I felt compelled to interview the family in honor of the naming of the USNS Cesar Chavez, slated to be launched May 5, 2012.
Iron workers at the General Dynamics NASCO shipyard in San Diego (of whom 60 percent are Hispanic) asked Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to ensure that the ship be named after Chavez. After careful consideration, the request was approved. According to U.S. Naval Historical Society, in 1819 an act of Congress formally placed the responsibility for assigning names to the Navy's ships in the hands of the Secretary of the Navy. This policy is now being called under review by Republican lawmakers.
However, a statement released by David Beltran, Press Secretary for Congressman Sam Farr (D-Calif.), on the naming of the USNS Cesar Chavez reads:
For 200 years the Navy has held a long and proud tradition of naming ships after figures that have played important roles in our nation's history. The names of these historic Americans have traveled the world on the side of our ships, representing our country's core values of freedom, liberty and equality. Naming a ship after Cesar Chavez keeps that tradition alive and embodies these core values our nation was founded on.
What I fail to understand is why there would be any controversy among elected officials, especially house members from the state of California, about the naming of this ship. For the record, the USNS Cesar Chavez would not be the first U.S. Navy ship named after a civil rights leader. That honor was bestowed upon USNS Medger Evers, named for the civil rights activist assassinated on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Miss.
Chavez was not a decorated war hero, but he still served in the United States Navy from 1946 to 1948, and in the spirit of the Lewis and Clark Class noncombatant dry supply vessels, he was a pioneer in so many ways. Not only did he change the rules for the working poor, but in fact he was a true patriot. In 1994 President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can obtain in the United States.
In researching the Chavez family, it should also be pointed out that Cesario Cavez, Caesar's grandfather, cut and hauled the wood that built the railroads and reinforced the mines of the Old West. Lirardo Chavez, Caesar's father, was a U.S. Postmaster and drove a Wells Fargo stagecoach.
In an interview with Marc Grossman, communications director for the Chavez Foundation and former personal aide and speechwriter for Cesar Chavez, I posed some questions about what Chavez might think about this historic event.
What would Chavez think about the naming of a naval ship in his honor ?
Cesar rarely allowed anything being named after him; he did not like to receive honors in his name. He would prefer not to see a street sign or national holiday named after him. He would prefer his name live on as inspiration to work for change that he inspired first with farm workers and the millions of others who did not work on a farm.
What would Chavez say about equality in present-day America?
A lot of progress has been made, but so much work remains to be done. For instance, under the new laws in Arizona and Alabama, Chavez would be profiled as an illegal alien.
How has the Latino community responded to the naming of the USNS Cesar Chavez?
There has been overwhelming support from the farm workers and Latino Americans from every corner of the United States, many of whom built and defended this country.
Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) has been an outspoken critic of the naming of the ship. He suggested naming the ship after Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was nominated for the Medal of Honor for action in Iraq, or after World War II Medal of Honor recipient John Finn, a lifelong San Diego resident. To the best of your knowledge, have their families opposed the naming or contacted the Chavez foundation?
No, to the best of my knowledge, they have not commented either way.
Do you think their families would support the naming of the ship after Chavez?
That's a great question, but as a matter of fact I do.
My impression of Chavez was that he was a humble man coming from modest beginnings near Yuma, Ariz., a child of the Depression. I envisioned him as a man who placed family and nation first. But for a man who never owned a car or earned more then $6,000 a year, a few things are certain.
Any one of us can have a positive change in this great nation. When that bottle of champagne breaks across the bow of the USNS Cesar Chavez, every Latino American can hold his or her head high with pride, and a small piece of American LGBT history will make its way around the world: a ship that is the embodiment of equality for all!