As someone who writes about California agriculture, I’m often surprised by how little modern farming is talked about. While many Californians are at least familiar with the name, Cesar Chavez, for example, many do not know what he did to help farmers. Nor, are they aware that March 31 is Cesar Chavez Day.
Considered one of the most important civil rights icons of the 20th century, Cesar Chavez epitomized everything about the American Dream: he was committed to hard work and perseverance, and believed that if you worked hard, you should be rewarded for it, or at least treated with respect and fairness.
Along with Dolores Huerta, he co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) credited as the first successful attempt at unionizing farm workers. While others worked for years through strikes and protests, Chavez took the fight for workers’ rights directly to consumers, and shined a light on the conditions that their food was produced under, urging a nationwide boycott of grapes. He let them know that the workers who grew their food couldnít afford to buy that food or feed their own families, and that they were denied the most basic working conditions that the majority of American workers take for granted.
No matter what he was faced with, he remained committed to non-violence. In 1968 he fasted to get those who had started to use violent tactics to recommit to non-violence. And while he fought for farm workers, he was really fighting for civil rights and equality for all unrepresented workers and for their fair treatment.
His legacy is everywhere, in every corner of the state, not just in rural areas, but in its largest cities. In Los Angeles, Brooklyn Avenue was renamed Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and in San Francisco, Army Street was renamed for him.
Nationwide, there are 43 major streets named for him. In California and beyond, there are libraries, murals, schools, statues and streets named for him. There’s a national memorial honoring him, and in 2012, the USNS Cesar Chavez became the first U.S. naval vessel named for a Latino. His face is even on a U.S. postage stamp.
President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation declaring March 31st as Cesar Chavez Day in the United States to “observe this day with appropriate service, community, and educational programs to honor Cesar Chavez’s enduring legacy.” I would argue that we need to go even further and, once and for all, declare it a federal holiday. For that to happen, Congress has to pass the resolution recognizing it as a national holiday.
The proclamation explains the important role Cesar Chavez played in helping farm workers: “They were exposed to dangerous pesticides and denied the most basic protections, including minimum wages, health care, and access to drinking water. Cesar Chavez devoted his life to correcting these injustices, to reminding us that every job has dignity, every life has value, and everyone — no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you come from — should have the chance to get ahead.”
Further, his cause, the rights of immigrant laborers is still relevant today, even more so in many states. The declaration of Cesar Chavez Day, along with the release of the feature film from actor and filmmaker Diego Luna about his life, simply titled Cesar Chavez, which is now playing, will hopefully do a lot to make his work and legacy as recognizable as that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
His family is also calling on President Obama to make Cesar Chavezís March 31 birthday a National Day of Service. It seems only fitting to take action, because as Chavez once responded: “If you want to remember me, organize!”