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.”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.

This LA Times photo captures a moment of
friendship between Bobby Kennedy and Chavez
during Chavez's 25-day fast in 1960.

The civil rights leader, who fought for fair wages and humane treatment for California’s farm workers in California, 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.

On March 10th, 1968, Cesar Chavez breaks his 25-day fast by accepting bread from Senator Robert Kennedy, Delano, California.
Left to right: Helen Chavez, Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez Photographer: Richard Darby

One of those “champions” was Rogelio Lona, a 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 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.

Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy and Cesar Chavez address the audience at an unknown meeting, possibly on the floor of the United States Senate.

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 us in a modern context.

Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union,
with McGovern for President supporters ("Grassroot McGoverners" in the language of the time) marching from the Civic Center to Union Square in San Francisco against Proposition 22 which forbade secondary boycotts.
Fall, 1972.

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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