Latino rights activist Jack Nava, a driving force behind a campaign to put a visage of late labor leader Cesar Chavez on a postage stamp, died Thursday of an apparent heart attack at his Ventura home. He was 68.
During an eight-year push to persuade the U.S. Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp featuring the United Farm Workers founder, Nava helped collect more than 25,000 signatures, circulating a homemade petition at college campuses, civil rights marches and other community events.
In a 2003 interview, Nava said he was driven by his own experience picking crops as a kid and by a desire to highlight the contributions of Latinos.
The 37-cent stamp was issued in 2003, depicting a smiling Chavez against a backdrop of vineyards.
Nava also was well-known in Ventura County for his annual pilgrimages to the Academy Awards, where dressed in tuxedo and bow tie he held a protest placard demanding that the movie industry do more to feature Latinos in film.
"I lost my hero," said daughter Jeri Nava-Maynez. "He had so much energy, so much life in him. His driving force was to help people who worked hard and deserved recognition."
Born in San Fernando and raised in Santa Paula, the retired barber was perhaps best known for his work to motivate Latino youth.
In the early 1990s, he set out to counter mock movie posters, circulated by the Ventura County district attorney, featuring the mug shots, criminal convictions and sentences of Ventura County gang members. Headlined "Boyz N The Jail," the posters were distributed to area police agencies for display in schools and libraries in an effort to curb gang membership.
Nava took offense at the mostly Latino lineup and launched his own series of posters featuring Latinos who had achieved successful careers in the county. The posters ran for years in several Spanish-language newspapers.
"I called him the instigator," said longtime friend Denis O'Leary, an Oxnard-area teacher who helped Nava make the posters. Nava was always sharply dressed and a familiar sight in his trademark rust-colored truck, O'Leary said. And he always carried a disposable camera to snap photos of friends and dignitaries he ran into at community functions.
"I had no idea of his age, but the guy was everywhere," he said. "He would talk to any group, any chance he got, if it was going to help promote the Latino community."
David Rodriguez, national vice president for the Far West region of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said Nava had a knack for showing up at meetings, even when he wasn't invited.
In fact, Rodriguez said he met Nava about six years ago at a LULAC civil rights conference at an Oxnard hotel. Without asking permission, Nava set up a table in the lobby to gather support for his effort to promote Latinos in film.
"He knew what needed to be done, and nothing would stop him," Rodriguez said. "His vocation was tending to the needs of the Latino community."
On the day he died, Nava had been scheduled to speak to a group of UC Santa Barbara students about his protests at the Academy Awards ceremonies. Nava-Maynez said her father, known for being early to everything, had dusted off his tuxedo for the March ceremony. Now, he probably will be buried in that suit, she said.
"No one told him to do this work, he just had a passion for it," Nava-Maynez said. "He didn't die a rich man, I can tell you that. He did this out of a labor of love."
Nava is survived by his wife of 41 years, Margaret Nava; three children; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.