Hundreds honor Chavez

In an urban center like Glendale, Sara Mendez said it's easy to forget about the struggles migrant workers face working the rural agricultural fields — especially for her 13-year-old daughter, Christina, who would spend all day at the mall given the chance.

But on Saturday, under gray skies, Mendez “dragged” Christina to the city's eighth annual Cesar Chavez commemoration at the Pacific Edison Community Center — an effort that by 12:30 p.m. had produced a more amiable response.

“It's actually nice to be around other Latinos and get connected to a part of history,” Christina said before gesturing to a line for free carne asada — or grilled steak, a traditional Mexican dish. “Plus, she didn't tell me about this.”

Held at La Plaza de la Cesar Chavez outside the community center on Pacific Avenue, the event was more festive this year, with couples dancing to the live overtures of Orquesta Charangoa, children running back and forth from the adjacent playground to the free carne asada booth and parents intermingling with city officials.

About 200 people came out for the event to honor the memory and birthday of the late civil rights activist, who between 1952 and his death in 1993 championed the cause of the Latino workers, especially those exposed to harsh conditions in the agricultural industries.

A World War II veteran, Chavez gained fame in the 1960s with the five-year Delano Grape Strike and following boycott that eventually produced the nation's first labor contract between growers and workers.

Chavez parlayed that success into a movement that bore the United Farm Workers union, which grew in strength and prominence thanks to the attention he garnered through high-profile hunger strikes and labor rallies.

His common slogan, “Si, se puede” — Spanish for “Yes, we can” — still resonates with Latinos today.

His fight for labor equality and justice influenced more than the farm worker labor movement, inspiring dozens to enter public service for their own causes.

“He did so much for working families, not only in terms of wages, but in terms of working conditions and the environment,” Councilman Frank Quintero said.

Chavez is credited with helping to bring the first national spotlight on the ill health effects pesticides were having on farm workers and the public.

Mayor Ara Najarian, during his opening remarks at the commemoration, also credited the late civil rights activist with inspiring one of his first political endeavors as a boy growing up in suburban Cleveland.

It was during the nationwide table grape boycott in the 1970s, and after a United Farm Workers union representative standing outside of a market explained the reasons behind the effort, Najarian said he helped hold the union sign for an hour.

In that moment, Najarian learned that “fairness and justice is something we all have to fight for,” he said.

That fight continues, and it's important that communities commit to improved labor conditions for the most vulnerable, said Christine Chavez, granddaughter of Cesar Chavez, during her keynote address.

“It's so crucial that we talk about issues that affect farmworkers today,” she said.

For Mendez, that would be a much more difficult task without events that keep Cesar Chavez's memory — and cause — alive.

“This is a great way to come out and have your kids appreciate what others have done before them,” she said. “Who knows? Maybe my daughter will become interested in something other than MySpace.”


?JASON WELLS covers City Hall. He may be reached at (818) 637-3235 or by e-mail at jason.wells@latimes.com.

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