By Victoria Mullen
When César Chávez was 11 years old, his family’s home was lost after his father made a deal to clear 80 acres of land in exchange for the deed to the house. The agreement was broken, and when Chavez’s father tried to buy the house, he could not pay the interest on the loan and the house was sold back to its original owner. It was the Great Depression, and Chávez and his family were forced to became migrant farm workers. The family would pick peas and lettuce in the winter, cherries and beans in the spring, corn and grapes in the summer, and cotton in the fall.
Chávez worked in the fields until 1952, when he became an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group. Chávez urged Mexican Americans to register and vote, and he traveled throughout California and made speeches in support of workers’ rights. In 1958, he became CSO’s national director.
Dedicating his life to workers’ rights, empowerment of the poor and disenfranchised, civil rights, economic justice, environmental justice and peace, Chávez always used non-violent methods to further his causes. He organized strikes and boycotts, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers union, UFW) along with Dolores Huerta, and undertook a number of fasts.
After his death, Chávez became a major historical icon for the Latino community. Many streets, schools and parks are named after him. He has since become an icon for organized labor and leftist politics, symbolizing support for Hispanic empowerment and for workers based on grassroots organizing. Barack Obama adopted Chávez’s slogan, “Sí, se puede” (Spanish for “Yes, one can” or, roughly, “Yes, it can be done”), as his 2008 presidential campaign slogan.
Each year across the country, César Chávez Day brings together hundreds of thousands who participate in celebrations, service and learning projects, and other activities that further Chávez’s many causes. Michigan is among the eight states that observe the holiday.
César Chávez National Holiday was established by Los Angeles volunteers who organized and led the effort in California. The legal holiday bill was signed into law on August 18, 2000. The holiday is celebrated in California on César E. Chávez’s birthday March 31st. This marked the first time that a labor leader or Latino has been honored with a public legal holiday.
In Grand Rapids, the Committee to Honor César Chávez plans several events throughout the year to honor the best-known Latino American hero, and the festivities begin March 17 when, at 11 am, the César E. Chávez Social Justice March begins at The Potters House School, corner of Grandville Ave. SW and Van Raalte Dr. SW. Participants will march north on Grandville to The Edge Urban Fellowship.
A Community Gathering follows at 11:30 am at The Edge Urban Fellowship, 735 Ritzema Ct. SW in Grand Rapids. Lead Pastor “PT” Troy Evans will officiate.
The festivities culminate in a luncheon at 1 pm at the Maya Mexican Grill, 1020 28th St. SW, Wyoming. The 2016 César E. Chávez Unity Luncheon will congratulate and welcome new Grand Rapids mayor, Rosalynn Bliss; and students from elementary to university level will showcase their musical talent and leadership abilities with special music, poetry and presentations. There will be a special tribute to Kathleen Straus, member of the State Board of Education, who has fought discrimination and worked to build bridges between races, religious and ethnic groups, and to promote social justice and education. A $25 donation per person is requested.