Keeping Legacy Alive

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The burning sun, the long lines of people and chants of "si se puede" (yes we can) brought bittersweet memories Sunday for Sylmar resident Norma Cervacio.

This time, the late farm labor leader, Cesar Chavez, was not present and that almost made her cry. But she held back her tears.

"This is a happy day. I used to walk behind him back in the early '90s," Cervacio said. "I mean, thanks to him we were able to drink water in the fields."

The 33-year-old former farm worker joined hundreds of others at Brand Park in Mission Hills to commemorate Chavez's life's work at the seventh annual Cesar Chavez Day Peregrinacion.

The Cesar Chavez Commemorative Committee, Pueblo y Salud Inc. and other organizations sponsored the event.

The crowd of about 1,000 walked 1 1/2 miles from Mission Hills to San Fernando Recreation Park, where the celebration continued with mariachis, food and cumbia music.

Cervacio and her 7-year-old son walked behind hundreds of Chavez's followers. Young men and women wearing indigenous Mexican dress and sandals led the march. Charros riding horses and legions of people carrying American, Mexican and California flags followed.

For more than 30 years, Chavez, who helped found the United Farm Workers union, worked to improve the living and working conditions of farm workers throughout the United States.

A year after Chavez died in 1993, the San Fernando committee dedicated itself to keeping Chavez's legacy alive, committee member Xavier Flores said.

The celebration is in San Fernando every year because it was the first city in the nation to designate Chavez's birthday, March 31, as an official holiday, Flores said.

But now, Latino leaders want to expand Chavez's legacy to the rest of the state. State and city dignitaries showed up Sunday to promote a bill in the state Legislature that would make his birthday a statewide holiday. Among those attending were outgoing Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) and Los Angeles City Councilman Alex Padilla.

Having an official holiday dedicated to one of the greatest Chicano activists of all time would raise awareness of the conditions some of the farm workers still face, Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar) said. He added that he speaks from experience, as the son of a farm worker.

"People go to the supermarket and don't think much when they pick up produce, except for the prices," Cardenas said. "Little do they know that some of these people who put food on their tables live under freeway passes, under trees and [in] cars.

It's time these people live like human beings," he said.

Young men and women arrived at the march Sunday hoping to educate their peers about Chavez's message.

"I wear a T-shirt with Chavez's photo and some kids ask me who that guy is," Pacoima resident Juan Rodriguez, 24, said. "I tell them, he was a great leader of our time. We all need to know who he was."

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Chavez's granddaughter, Christine Sanchez-Delgado, thanked the crowd for its support.

"He never made more than $6,000 a year, but when he died, he had crowds of people walking behind his casket," said Sanchez-Delgado. "He lived to inspire others to be [his] brother's keeper. That is the measure of a man's wealth."

A second celebration honoring Chavez, a mariachi Mass, will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday at St. Ferdinand Catholic Church, 1109 Coronel St. in San Fernando.

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