California bid for holiday honoring Cesar Chavez

Rising profile of Latinos boosts effort to create day in honor of farm- labor activist.

Legendary farm-labor leader Cesar Chavez, with his unassuming style and aversion to celebrity status, would probably find the whole thing nonsense.

But a movement to create a holiday in his name is gaining steam in California, propelled by the success nationally of creating a holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the rising political profile of Latinos generally.

The California legislature is aiming for a bill Gov. Gray Davis could sign within the next two weeks. Those behind the measure think that if passed, it will provide the platform for a national campaign thereafter.

"It will be a landmark, but we're not stopping in California," says Evelina Alarcon, state coordinator of the Cesar E. Chavez Holiday Campaign. "Our goal is to go national."

For many Latinos, particularly those of Mexican heritage, Chavez is a revered figure without contemporary equal.

He was a champion of farmworkers' rights and gave the civil rights movement of the 1960s meaning for Hispanics. As a firm practitioner of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest, he is often mentioned in the same breath as historic figures like Mahatma Gandhi.

"Some believe that Cesar Chavez is a hero to the Latino community," says Richard Polanco, majority leader of the California State Senate and a chief proponent of the holiday legislation. "In fact, he is a hero to all people who believe in dignity, human rights, and nonviolence."

The only forces seemingly in the way of a paid holiday honoring Chavez are those who argue it is too costly, and those who see holidays as meaningless or inadequate gestures.

In fact, the push for a holiday has already encountered resistance from those who say the legislation, ironically, would grant a paid day off for state workers but do nothing for the farmworkers to whom Chavez dedicated his life.

Education campaign

A compromise to make the holiday more meaningful now includes a provision that would require public schools to teach students at all grade levels something about Chavez each year.

Also, students would devote two hours of school time to community service each spring.

That has softened some opposition, but for those still concerned about the fiscal impact, the price tag on the new approach has risen to $11 million annually. A little over half of the expense would go for instructional materials for schools and the rest of the cost is for the paid day off for state workers.

California, along with Texas and Arizona, already has designated a day in honor of Chavez. But this measure would elevate its status to a paid holiday.

"People across the country see this effort as a bellwether," says Senator Polanco's spokesman Bill Mabie. "We've gotten support letters from Maryland, Florida, and Texas."

The push for a paid holiday honoring Chavez began over a year ago, but languished at first. This year, however, it has stronger momentum, backed by more than 100,000 people who have signed a petition or letters and cards sent to legislators, says Ms. Alarcon. Celebrities like musician Carlos Santana have welcomed circulation of petitions at concerts, and there have been Chavez rallies in various parts of the state.

Inadequate gesture

However, some of those who revere the late Chavez continue to find the gesture of a paid holiday inadequate. One legislator from California's Central Valley says he won't support the bill unless it does more for farmworkers, by including money for housing, healthcare, and worker safety.

Indeed, Chavez worked for decades trying to organize and gain better pay for Hispanic farmworkers and overturn the exploitative migrant-labor system that operated in California.

In the late 1960s, Chavez was proposed for a Nobel Peace Prize, but he made special efforts to take his name off the list of nominees. Today, scores of streets, parks, and schools bear his name in various California cities.

In a recent newspaper article, Fernando Chavez guessed at how his father would react to the current wave of adulation: "I bet he would have dismissed all of it as 'nonsense,' " he wrote.

Push for federal holiday

Still, Chavez heirs and leaders of the union he founded, the United Farm Workers, are behind the holiday effort.

Passage of a bill is expected to galvanize efforts in Congress to push for a federal version of the holiday. As supporters see it, a Chavez federal holiday would be both a tribute to Latinos and to organized labor.

Yet success at the national level may not come quickly. "It'll be difficult for it to go national because [Chavez] wasn't as visible as Martin Luther King," says Arturo Vargas, director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Still, with the rising political importance of Latinos, who are being actively courted by both major political parties during this presidential-election year, some analysts believe the idea could move quickly.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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