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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A perspective on honoring Cesar Chavez, "a treasured American...."

As the drive to create a permanent, tangible remembrance in Portland honoring the great American hero Cesar Chavez gets under way, it is a good time to reflect on how Oregonians have or have not honored him in the past.

“We draw our strength from the very despair in which we find we have been forced to live. We shall endure.” –Cesar Chavez***

In 1999, KBOO community radio was one of the first entities in the nation to declare March 31, Cesar Chavez’ birthday, a national holiday (see related posting).

“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest fruits and vegetables and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.” --Cesar Chavez

That’s right, the KBOO Board of Directors voted to declare a National holiday, and it was my proudest moment as a member of that Board.

Woodburn High School hosts an annual Cesar Chavez Day celebration each Spring, although the local school board refused to name a new middle school after him.

“There is so much human potential wasted by poverty, so many children are forced to quit school and go to work.” –Cesar Chavez

In 2005, the Oregon State Senate passed Senate Resolution 1, honoring the late civil rights leader. Senate President Peter Courtney, Senator Majority Leader Kate Brown and Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli sponsored this bill.

“My motivation to change these unjustices came from my personal life… from watching what my mother and father went through when I was growing up; from what we experienced as migrant farm workers…” –Cesar Chavez

Legislative leaders traditionally reserve low-numbered bills for issues of particular significance, or to convey a sense of elevated honor and respect, hence the number one designation for the Cesar Chavez legislation. For example, Senate President Peter Courtney could not have made his commitment to the issue of mental health parity plainer than he did, by designating this legislation as Senate Bill 1 in both the 2003 and 2005 legislative sessions.

“Our mother used to say there is a difference between being of service and being a servant…mother taught us not to be afraid to fight—to stand up for our rights. But she also taught us not to be violent.” –Cesar Chavez

The day in 2005 that Senate Resolution 1 came to the floor was a proud moment for Oregon, for Oregonians, and for those of us who keep the memory of Cesar Chavez alive in our hearts.

Senate Resolution 1 encourages Oregonians to undertake a day of voluntary service to others to honor “Cesar Chavez, a treasured American….”

“There is plenty of love and good will in our movement to give energy to our struggle and still have plenty left over to break down and change the climate of hate and fear around us.” --Cesar Chavez

While not officially in remembrance of Cesar Chavez, the 400 or so volunteers who turned out for Project Homeless Connect on Tuesday September 18, certainly captured that same spirit of voluntary service to others.

“When you have people together that believe in something very strongly, whether it be politics, unions or religion—things happen.” –Cesar Chavez

Here is the text of Senate Resolution 1:


“Whereas Cesar Chavez, a treasured American, was born near Yuma, Arizona, on March 31, 1927, and built a creditable legacy of achievement and service by working for economic and social justice for farmworkers; and

“Whereas Cesar Chavez, working with the Community Service Organization in California, led voter registration drives that helped register native born Latinos; and

“Whereas in 1962, when the Community Service Organization refused to create a farmworkers' union, Cesar Chavez resigned and founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America, bringing national attention to the plight of farmworkers through nonviolent protests, including fasting; and

“Whereas Cesar Chavez led boycotts calling attention to health problems farmworkers suffered due to the use of certain pesticides on crops; and

“Whereas Cesar Chavez was recognized by the United States and Mexico with each country's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Aguila Azteca respectively, for his enormous contributions to ending injustice; and

“Whereas in 2003 the United States Postal Service commemorated the life of Cesar Chavez with a postage stamp because he was a man of strength and conviction whose life serves as an example of determination and humility to all of us (see related posting); and

“Whereas Cesar Chavez's example has motivated thousands of Oregonians to take up and to support causes that he championed and popularized, making a positive and lasting change for Oregon farmworkers; and

“Whereas Cesar Chavez's work and legacy have been recognized by Governor John Kitzhaber via his proclamation on March 31, 2001, as well as by the Woodburn School District, the City of Woodburn, the City of Medford and other entities that have declared special observances; now, therefore, Be It Resolved by the Senate of the State of Oregon:

“That we, the members of the Senate of the Seventy-third Legislative Assembly, encourage all Oregonians to undertake a day of voluntary service to others in honor of Cesar Chavez and encourage all Oregon counties, municipalities and school districts to join in recognizing Cesar Chavez's life and legacy through proclamations, observances and community and educational activities.”

--End of Senate Resolution 1

“There is no turning back. We are winning because ours is a revolution of the mind and heart.” –Cesar Chavez

Eight states have declared Cesar Chavez Day of Service and Learning an official holiday, with a call for voluntary service to others in his memory: Wisconsin, Michigan, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, California and Texas.

“Our struggle is not easy. Those that oppose our cause are rich and powerful, and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our own bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons.” –Cesar Chavez

In addition to his work as a civil rights leader, it is important to remember Chavez’ legacy as an environmentalist of the highest caliber regarding the use of pesticides and exposure to poisons by farmworkers and their families, and his role in banning the backbreaking, crippling “short hoe.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. acknowledged Cesar Chavez’s unique methodologies:

“You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.” --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cesar Chavez’ worn-out body gave out on April 23, 1993 in San Luis, Arizona.

More than 40,000 mourners came to Delano, California to honor Cesar Chavez when he was laid to rest on April 29.

But his spirit endures, and many Oregonians seek a permanent, tangible, physical presence in Portland.

The honorings listed in the Senate Resolution do not quite get us there, and the historic 37-cent US Postage stamp honoring Chavez has largely gone to the Land of Outdated Postage stamps.

“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducated the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the person who is not afraid anymore. We have looked into the future and the future is ours.” --Cesar Chavez

….bringing us to the present day and the discussion about renaming Interstate Avenue, and one more Chavez quotation, titled “Prayer of the Farm Workers’ Struggle,” by Cesar Chavez:

“Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.
Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with other workers.
Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the spirit will be alive among us.
Let the spirit flourish and grow;
So we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice;
Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world.”

May the words of the great man himself guide us through this local process.

Viva Cesar Chavez!

Meanwhile, if there’s a street in Portland that’s crying out for a name change, it’s Killingsworth.

I have no doubt that a proposal to rename Killingsworth can meet the standard set in Portland’s city ordinances.

2,500 signatures? No problema.

The phone book indicates only one business on the entire street that bears the name, indicating its low desirability among business interests.

At the eastern end of Killingsworth are the large populations of Latino apartment dwellers.

The #72, busiest bus line in Portland, runs through much of its length.

The educational nexus of N-NE Portland is located on Killingsworth, between Portland Community College Cascade and Jefferson High School.

Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard (or Avenue) signs would appear on both I-5 and I-205.

…And at the Interstate Max station….

This is a good time to expand the discussion, involve the larger community, invoke the spirit of Cesar Chavez, and avoid locking ourselves into positions that will serve to prolong the effort and increase bitterness.

Sooner or later, there will be a permanent, tangible, physical tribute to Chavez and the Spirit of Chavez in Portland. No question about it.

The question is how we as a community will get there.

(originally posted on and

Updated September 21, 2007

***Quotations thanks to the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation

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