Although much of Cesar Chavez’s work was done in the Central Valley, he has had a lasting presence here in the Mission District.
On March 31, the country commemorated his work as a civil rights and labor activist. And on Saturday, hundreds of his admirers paraded through the Mission to celebrate his influence on the Latino community.
“He talked and acted and dressed like the people he was working with,” said Marc Grossman, Chavez’s former speechwriter and press secretary. “People, especially Latinos, would see him and say to themselves, ‘He looks like my father, my uncle, my son – if he can do these great things, maybe I can too.’”
Chavez was known for organizing the farm workers, leading several “grape boycotts” and drawing attention to the danger pesticides posed to workers and consumers.
“I don’t believe any Latino in Mission was not in involved in the grape boycotts,” said Jim Salinas, a labor organizer who knew Chavez, remembering picket lines in front of the Safeway on 30th Street.
Eva Royale, San Francisco regional manager for the United Farm Workers from 1990 to 2002, emphasized the importance of the labor union’s work in San Francisco. Even before she became regional manager, she organized rallies in San Francisco, as well as trips to the Central Valley to support union demonstrations.
“To be organizing in the valley, we had to have awareness in the city,” Royale said. “We were the ones in the city that were connected to the community and the union and the media and politicians.”
Yet Royale said that after Chavez died, keeping his message alive has been a challenge.
“My concern is that schools don’t provide enough information about Cesar and what he stood for and accomplished,” she said. “They need to know about who our leaders are – someone like Cesar, who only had an eighth grade education.”
That’s why it is important to have celebrations like the parade, which give children and others the opportunity to remember and learn.
She also said it has taken incredible organizational strength to keep him present in public consciousness. Royale was involved in making Cesar Chavez Day a California state holiday in 2000 (it became a federal holiday in 2014), and changing Army Street into Cesar Chavez Street in 1995.
“We wanted to first change 24th Street to Cesar Chavez Street, but some people wanted South Van Ness and some wanted Mission Street,” Royale recalled. “We asked Dolores (Huerta) which street to change, and she said Army Street because it has a freeway entrance. Now there are twenty-five signs along freeway, so you can’t go in and out of the city without seeing his name.”