The closest thing Latinos have to a national holiday is Cesar Chavez’s birthday on March 31st. Cesar Chavez’s birthday is already celebrated in ten states, and President Barack Obama not only has supported making it a national holiday, but recently named a national park on his behalf.
This week, children will be learning about the labor leader’s legacy in schools, and marches have been organized from California to Pennsylvania to honor the 86th anniversary of his birth and in support of immigration reform.
He has become the hero, the leader for Latinos pushing for immigration reform.
“He stood up and got people to believe in themselves,” says Paul Chavez, his son and president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
On March 23rd and 24th Chavez led marches in Yakima, Washington and several California cities. Thousands of people– families affected by immigration reform, farm workers, and social activists– participated.
Chavez believes his father’s memory is thriving because of the ongoing immigration debate and country’s changing demographics. “People look for someone who they can relate to,” he says. He points out that his father, like many undocumented immigrants, came from humble beginnings and struggled throughout his life. But despite his hardships, he was able to lead and inspire.
Matthew Garcia, professor of history and author of “From the Jaws of History: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement,” says that although Chavez was a far more complicated man than he was given credit for, Latinos have built up Cesar Chavez’s legacy because of their need for a hero. “We need our Martin Luther King, too,” he says.
For Marcos Muñoz, a former United Farm Workers organizer, Cesar Chavez was a very inspirational figure who transformed his life. After immigrating from Coahuila, Mexico when he was 13 years old, Muñoz became a migrant worker in California where he earned two to three dollars a day. In 1965 he was picking grapes when a group of people called him in to an office. There, they told him about the strike and explained how the union would benefit migrant workers. One of the people in the group was Cesar Chavez. From that day forward, Muñoz was involved in the movement and traveled all over the country to educate people about the boycott and working conditions of migrant workers.
“We didn’t have hope in our lives. We were scared,” he says. “But I found faith. It changed my life and my way of thinking.”
Like Chavez, Muñoz also believes that the renewed interest in Cesar Chavez’s life may also be due to the current immigration debate. “Things have gotten better in many ways, but it’s not enough. We have to do what he wasn’t able to finish,” he says.
Though Chavez has become a symbol for immigration reform, many point out that Chavez was not in favor of expanding immigration and believed that undocumented immigrants could pose a threat to unionized workers. Chavez and the UFWs even reported some undocumented immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Regardless of the complicated history, Chavez is still mobilizing Latinos 20 years after his death, including many young undocumented people who are looking for a leader, representative or symbol they can relate to.
“Now in these difficult times, with Latinos being victimized, it’s especially important to remember that we’ve been here for many years,” Chavez says. “We come and work in the most difficult conditions that other folks refuse to do, and yet we still have tremendous optimism in this great land.”
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and writer living in Chicago. She is currently the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas and a contributor for NBCLatino, The Huffington Post and other publications. She is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and the 2013 “Discovery”/Boston Review poetry prize. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, or www.erikalsanchez.com