When the Mission District celebrates Cesar Chavez on Saturday, the marchers will include local activists whose lives were profoundly affected by the life and legacy of the Mexican-American labor leader who would have turned 82 this year.
“It is important for us to be here and talk about him because he made it easier for Americans to accept Latino workers,” said Local Union 377 ironworker Eduardo Jimenez, who joined more than 200 Chavez admirers on Tuesday, Cesar Chavez Day, for a commemorative breakfast of pan dulce and huevos.
Saturday’s Holiday Parade and Festival will begin at noon at 24th and Mission streets.
Chavez is best known for dedicating his life to organizing for the rights of farm workers demanding fair wages and human rights, and for founding The United Farm Workers Union (UFW) in 1962.
“I remember marching with Cesar in Central Valley, and it is amazing to see how far we have come today,” said Superintendent of Schools Carlos Garcia. Growing up in a family of farm workers, Garcia gave testimony to the difficult working conditions farm workers faced with no breaks and no bathrooms.
Leading marches, boycotts and protests throughout the country., Chavez brought the struggle of undocumented workers to Americans across the nation.
Today Cesar Chavez Street and Cesar Chavez Elementary, both in the Mission District, serve as daily reminders of his service to the community. Many Mission District leaders say the energy of the movement influenced their own life’s work.
“He reminds us of how far we have come but still how far we have to go in our work for social justice,” said District 9 Supervisor David Campos. Campos remembers hearing Cesar Chavez speak back when he was a student at Stanford University.
Rene Yáñez, former director of Galleria de La Raza, explained that after seeing Teatro Campesino—theatrical performances put on by farm workers on the back of flatbed trucks—and the growth of silkscreened protest art, he and his partners were encouraged to develop a space for Latino art in the Mission. “Even today he serves as a role model for putting your community first no matter what you do.”
Even those too young to have personal memories of Chavez say the achievements of his work are with them. Carla Vasquez, 19, said she wears a T-shirt with the UFW eagle logo because it’s “a way to remember what Cesar Chavez had to go through and fight for.”
“He starved for a month to show Latinos that you can do it,” she said, referring to Chavez’s tactic of fasting to bring attention to the dangers of pesticides.
Although Chavez’s influence has held strong in the Mission District, community member Nicky Trasvina, who became an active supporter of the UFW while a students at San Francisco State University, said the labor leader seldom visited the city. “There wasn’t as much need for Cesar to do his campaigning here because San Francisco is very progressive and people really supported the boycotts here,” she said.
Even so, the UFW had offices based in San Francisco for 12 years where volunteers and staff met to support the farm worker campaigns with fundraisers and marches, many of which took place down Cesar Chavez Street and in Dolores Park.
Eva Royale acted as the UFW regional manager until it closed in 2002. She now heads the Cesar Chavez Holiday committee. Although there have been setbacks to funding and staff for Bay Area UFW, she said the celebration of his life will continue to survive by “any means necessary.”
“There is still more work to be done. The UFW theme “Sí se puede [Yes we can]” is as true today as it was then.”
A quick walk down Cesar Chavez Street on any given day and it is easy to see what Royale is talking about. There, a new group of undocumented workers—day laborers—waits along the street hoping to be picked up for work. Without the protection of a union or labor laws, many are left just as vulnerable to employers as the farm workers once were.
Juan Pedro has been working in the United States for six years. He said he doubts conditions will improve for him. “It is very difficult but human rights won’t feed me,” he said. “Even if there are policies to protect us there are still going to be corrupt people.”
A native of Mexico, Pedro said he doesn’t know much about Cesar Chavez but is now learning about the labor leader by reading the UFW website for a computer course he is taking at City College.
“I learned that he was a labor leader in many states. I think that he was probably a great leader in his time.”