Friday, March 31, is Cesar Chavez Day, a state holiday to honor the birthday and legacy of the late labor leader and civil rights activist. The CSUN campus will be closed in observance of the holiday, but Matadors will commemorate it with a “Day of Service Fair” on April 4 on campus to introduce nonprofit organizations to potential volunteers.
Chavez was born in Yuma, Ariz., on March 31, 1927. He and his family moved to California during the Great Depression and worked on farms throughout the state. In 1962, he, along with activist Dolores Huerta and others, established the National Farm Workers Association. That organization would later unite with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Larry Itliong, to form a union known today as the United Farm Workers of America. They spearheaded the movement that changed how farm workers were treated and paid. Chavez died on April 23, 1993.
In California, people are encouraged to use the day off as a day of community service in recognition of Chavez’s lifelong work organizing farm workers and fighting for their civil rights. CSUN Today visited the bustling Chicana/o Studies Lobby in Jerome Richfield Hall and spoke with students, as well as Chicana/o Studies professor Everto Ruiz, about the labor leader and the meaning they find in the holiday.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for people to remember and celebrate Cesar Chavez’s life?
Everto Ruiz, Professor, Chicana/o Studies:
“He was an individual who was successful in leading an effort to bring about changes for the farmworkers and securing some of the first contracts with corporate farming companies. I’m not going to say he was the first one that came up with that idea because farm workers since the early 1900s had been trying build a labor union that would advocate for farm workers, but they most often would fail because of the strength and the political influence of the agricultural industry.
So, for that reason, we remember Cesar, but here’s the other reason: Everyone is connected to farm work. People here in the city, in the Valley, might say, ‘But we don’t do farm work.’ Well, we eat. We eat food, we eat vegetables. So, we buy and contribute to that whole agricultural system.
We want to make sure that those workers who feed the nation are compensated in a very just and fair way. Not only compensated but also provided working conditions that are basic, like having fresh water, having restrooms in the fields, breaks during the day, health insurance, retirement plans and all of those benefits and protections that most workers have across this country in various industries.”
Eric Gonzalez, Freshman:
“It’s important to remember our roots, but I also think it’s important that we remember the other people who were just as essential in the movement as Chavez. I know Dolores Huerta was also just as responsible for the success of the creation of the United Farm Workers union, but we don’t talk about her as much.”
Victor Ulloa-Reyes, Graduate Student in Chicana/o Studies:
“I don’t think Cesar Chavez’s life is what people should be focusing on, but rather the United Farm Workers movement as a whole. Of course, Cesar Chavez was the face of it all, but there was a ton of labor and commitment done by a whole lot of organizers, many of which have gone incredibly unrecognized. This includes the likes of Dolores Huerta, Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong. A reason to look at the movement is people do live flawed lives, and when you focus on the individuals, you risk overlooking the legacy of their work due to the individual’s personal beliefs and values, especially as time continues. … Most people fail to realize that the Delano Grape Strike [of the 1960s] showed unity between Mexican and Filipino farmworkers, and the typical narrative is that it was mostly Mexicans. It is important to champion community efforts and organizations because that is the core of any movement.”
Q: What about Cesar Chavez’s work resonates most with you?
Ruiz: “What resonates most with me is that he brought dignity to farm workers. He and the other leaders in that movement brought the idea to farm workers that they should respect themselves first. You have to have that self-dignity and you have to be proud of what you do, especially when you do such important work for this world. They’re feeding the world.”
Anya Castro, Psychology Senior:
“I know Cesar Chavez led several boycotts, protests and hunger strikes for the equal treatment of farm workers. The hunger strike of 1968 [as part of the grape boycott] stood out to me the most since I could never imagine doing that myself.”
Ulloa-Reyes: “Chavez is a very interesting historical figure and was sadly a product of his time. It is hard for me to resonate with much. The work he did was very important and did establish a lot for farm workers and labor rights as a whole, but it is difficult to overlook the extreme sexism, anti-immigrant rhetoric and assimilation efforts within the United Farm Workers movement. Again, he was sadly just a product of his time.”
Acts of Service:
Ruiz is part of the Cesar Chavez Commemorative Committee, San Fernando Valley, that has organized a march in Chavez’s honor every year since his death in 1993. This year’s march took place on March 26. On March 31, Commemorative Committee members will conduct tours at the Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Park at the corner of Wolfskill Street and Truman St., San Fernando. The tours will take place between 11 a.m.-2 p.m. No registration is necessary.
CSUN will host its annual “Day of Service Fair” on April 4, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in honor of Chavez. Nonprofit organizations will be on hand to provide information about volunteer opportunities to interested Matadors. This year, about 50 nonprofits are expected to take part in the event.