Cesar Saludo

Francisca Montoya hugs a framed, autographed photo to her chest as shouts of "Si se puede" and "Viva la causa" ring through the afternoon air. "Yes, we can," and "Long live the cause" were rallying cries of the farmworker movement, and Cesar Estrada Chávez was its founder. Montoya's beloved photo of him is dated 1971, and was signed for her when she was only 17.

Montoya comes from a family of farmworkers. Her mother was a grape picker in what is now the Arrowhead master-planned community. Montoya says that in the days before the United Farm Workers Union, migrant workers had to contend with low pay, no benefits, no bathrooms, no drinking water, no breaks or holidays, long hours, hazardous working conditions and no right to complain. She says Chávez helped to change this.

"It's a dream to be here celebrating this day," she says.

After five years of effort by Latino legislators, the State of Arizona has formally recognized a day that the Latino community has celebrated for years. In a public ceremony on Friday, March 31, Governor Jane Hull signed a bill into law that establishes that day as Dr. Cesar Estrada Chávez Day. It is not a paid holiday, but a day of recognition.

State Senator Joe Eddie Lopez, a Phoenix Democrat and former farmworker, says he worked with Chávez in the '70s. He had pushed the Chávez Day legislation since 1995. Before the current legislative session, his bill had never even received a hearing.

"I think they questioned the worthiness of this individual to be recognized on a day," Lopez says. "I think that's absolutely wrong. Cesar Chávez is the most revered man in the Latino community."

Chávez and Dolores Huerta organized the United Farm Workers Union in the early '60s to promote migrant workers' rights and challenge growers to provide humane working conditions.

Heather Flower of the Western Growers Association, which includes growers in Arizona and California, says her organization is not opposed to Chávez Day.

"It looks as though the Legislature has spoken, and that's what their constituents are looking for," Flower says.

However, Lopez says that misinformation about Chávez swirled at the state Capitol.

"Representative Jarrett didn't vote for it because she heard from farmers that Cesar Chávez's goons beat up on the farmers," Lopez says. "And if you had been involved in some of the strikes, you would know that it was almost impossible for anybody to get within 100 yards of any farmer."

Jarrett says she doesn't remember voting against the bill, and that her only objection is that Cesar Chávez Day is not an all-inclusive holiday.

"If you want something, I would prefer to just make it civil rights day and then everybody can celebrate with whomever they feel is the person who has championed civil rights," says Jarrett. "People can go out and celebrate Cesar Chávez, and people can go out and celebrate Martin Luther King and Native Americans can choose whomever they want to go for."

Despite Jarrett's sentiment, the enactment of Senate Bill 1206 puts Chávez alongside the likes of Christopher Columbus with an honorary day of recognition.

Adán Luévano, a 26-year-old student teacher at North High School, says it's an important issue of pride for younger generations.

"The concept of heroes is important for a child," Luévano says. "It's important that kids see a role model they can identify with."

This argument doesn't hold water with Jarrett.

"We all have our heroes," she says. "Are you going to celebrate Ronald Reagan Day? He happens to be my hero."

Champions of conservatism and supply-side economics are perhaps easier to come by than are Mexican labor leaders. And Luévano says they are certainly harder to identify with if you are a young Latino.

"It's tough to leave your own country," Luévano says. "When their parents come to this country, they are uneducated, they often don't speak the language or know their rights. This strips away pride, and they pass that on to their children. Many of these kids know they aren't wanted here, and there is debate about whether or not they even have the right to go to school. I had one kid say, 'We're a weaker people.' He said it sarcastically, but there's always some truth in sarcasm.

"Most of the kids do know who Cesar Chávez was, but don't understand the impact of what he did. Ten years ago when I was in school, teachers used to call me Adam -- not Adán. It was different to be Mexican and poor."

Lopez says things are changing for the Latino community in Phoenix, but they are changing slowly.

"There are more issues that are being brought forth that affect Latinos," he says. "It's a growing population that is gaining economic and political power in the state. It still has a long ways to go."

Fed up with the inability to pass the Chávez Day bill, members of the Latino community formed a committee a year ago to galvanize support for a ballot initiative, as was required to enact Martin Luther King Day. David Mendoza, treasurer of the Si Se Puede/Yes We Can Committee, says legislators responded once they saw the support the issue received from the business community, religious groups and organized labor.

"I think once we started raising the money, they saw the money was coming in and the support that was out there. It was no longer a labor issue, it was a community issue," Mendoza says.

Once the Legislature had the chance to hear the bill, it passed 28-2 in the Senate and 46-11 in the House.

The difficult part was getting legislative leadership to bring it to a vote. Mendoza, who has been a lobbyist for nearly a decade, says Chávez Day was a long time coming because Latino issues in general are not a priority. He says that despite a strong Hispanic caucus, including four senators and seven representatives, it is difficult to organize the Legislature around issues important to Hispanics.

"It seems you have to just go up there and take it from them," Mendoza says. "They're not going to give you anything.

"They wanted to create a state dinosaur. They were debating and passing this issue and those types of things got attention. But when you have an issue that is important to the Hispanic community like Cesar Chávez Day, they don't even give it a hearing. . . . Maybe I shouldn't, but I take it personally. I think [Latino issues] should rate a little bit higher on their priorities. We have to continually educate our elected officials."

Nearly 150 people gathered on the Capitol mall on Friday for the bill signing. People of all ages and ethnicities carried Si Se Puede signs and wore Cesar Chávez buttons. Many donned union shirts. A group of children displayed a banner reading "We did it for Martin, let's do it for Cesar."

Governor Hull used the opportunity to plug her proposal to add 0.6 percent to the state sales tax to fund education. She wants to put the measure on the November ballot.

"There is no reason for any child not to succeed," Hull says.

Senator Lopez agrees, though he says it will take more than a tax hike to improve education for Latino children. He says the hesitancy to consider the Chávez Day bill extends to other issues of concern for the Latino community.

"The real failure of our public school system has been a failure to educate people of color," he says. "This Legislature has failed to act on programs that we know work -- for instance, bilingual education."

At the bill-signing ceremony, Lopez thanked the Senate and House leadership, and Senate President Brenda Burns for allowing Chávez Day to pass.

"Nothing ever gets done -- particularly for Democrats -- without support of the leadership," Lopez says.

Lopez was quick to tell the crowd that these are the kindest words he has to say about the majority leaders.

"There are many areas where they have not been as supportive as they should," he says.

Contact Amanda Scioscia at her online address: [email protected]

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Amanda Scioscia
Contact: Amanda Scioscia