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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Portland Cesar Chavez honoring effort does not need to be a dead end

By Sean Cruz

Portland, Oregon—The Oregonian’s Multnomah County columnist Anna Griffin wrote “Chavez Boulevard? Dead end street is more likely”, here:

…prompting my Mexican-American, Chicano comments, here:

March 21, 2009

The Committee-Once-Bent-on-Renaming-Interstate-Avenue has never asked the City or the County or the State to put other possible public property naming options on the table, and Portland remains stuck in the mire largely because the White Folks in Charge at all levels of Oregon government have been so fearful of alienating a potential voting bloc.

The street-focused effort will win no awards for creativity or imagination, in part because there is no major street in Portland that is a natural fit for a Mexican American hero.

Nothing underscores this point more than the fact that the Committee is equally good with Broadway, 39th, Grand or Interstate Avenue, so far….

The Committee’s failure to describe Chavez accurately or to acknowledge that he was of Mexican ancestry, or that his achievements stemmed from his great courage and his experiences in a Mexican migrant farm worker family, working in the USA, has made the honoring process more complicated than it has ever needed to be.

The best they have done is to state that he was an American civil rights leader.

That falls far short of honoring Chavez’ legacy, and points to the core failure of the Committee co-chairs and its unknown membership, apart from the pig-headed arrogance and clumsiness: education.

While there have been plenty of racist comments opposing the recognition of Cesar Chavez with a street renaming or in any other way, it is clear that even the supporters of the effort have little understanding of who he was, what he accomplished or why it is important to remember him.

Cesar Chavez softened opposition by raising public awareness of the suffering of America’s mostly Mexican migrant agricultural workforce, not by making blanket accusations and staying stuck in a rut….

The boycott of table grapes was part of a strategy to get the attention of the American public on farmworker issues, educate them and then gain their support.

The grapes themselves were not the issue. The issue was the appalling living and working conditions, including the use of the 12-inch short hoe, el cortito, that millions of families were enduring, had endured since the USA established itself in what was until the 1840s the northern part of the Republic of Mexico.

The boycott did not extend to wine grapes, but only table grapes….

Few Americans were going to stand for a bunch of Mexican farm workers messing with their wine, but it was a fairly easy sacrifice for supporters to forego table grapes during the boycott, once they were educated to the issue….

The table grapes were an economic pressure point.

I’d like the people bent on renaming a Portland street to work on describing Cesar Chavez more accurately, using words like Mexican-American, migrant and Chicano once in a while; focus more on educating the community, less on making demands of other people’s time and money; more on the honoring part, less on the self-righteous part…remember that you do not own the franchise except in your own minds.

That important fact has been lost on the white politicians, salsa-dancing around the issue, just as poorly informed now as when they started kicking the can of worms through town….

It would be no insult to name a school, a library, a park, a farmers’ market, a bridge for Cesar Chavez, no insult to Mexican-Americans or Chicanos at all.

One wonders where we would be now if only the Chavez Committee members had thought to engage the broader community in a discussion, asking the question: What are some appropriate ways to remember Cesar Chavez in Portland?, and working from there….

My guess is that we would have gotten it done a year ago, and it would be beautiful….

Additional comment, posted later:

By Sean Cruz

Anna Griffin’s column has provoked some comments regarding the phrase “you people”, opening the door to another Teachable Moment in the City of Portland:

Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Hernandez vs State of Texas, Mexican Americans had no standing as a people under U.S. law, and no protection under the 14th Amendment.

The case arose out of the fact that no Mexican American or Spanish-surnamed citizen had served on a jury across 70 Texas counties in 25 years.

“Chief Justice Earl Warren and the rest of the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Hernandez, and required he be retried with a jury composed of his peers. The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment protects those beyond the racial classes of white or Negro, and extends to other racial groups, such as Mexican American in this case.” –source: Wikipedia, here:

The first paragraph of the 14th Amendment stated these key, fundamental rights:

“Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Prior to Hernandez, no Mexican American defendant could even hope for a jury of his peers in Texas and other places.

Mexican Americans were subject to the same poll taxes as African Americans, worked in those same cotton fields, were usually forced to live in neighborhoods with the most poorly-equipped schools, could not get a foothold in any union job, but—unlike any other racial or ethnic group—could be held in custody at any moment, swept up and deported, often in error, sorry about that, you sure looked illegal to me….

Prior to Hernandez, Mexican Americans were regarded as “white” for purposes of the 14th Amendment, and therefore could not suffer discrimination by other whites….

Prior to Hernandez, restaurant owners could and did post signs reading “No Mexicans, Indians or dogs” and would be guilty of discrimination only in spirit, only in their own shrunken souls….

Navy veteran Cesar Chavez was arrested for refusing to sit in the colored-only balcony of a California movie theater…you could get put in jail for not knowing your Mexican place in the USA, not that long ago….

Mexican Americans are still finding out where their Mexican places are in the USA…people didn’t complain so much when the Mexicans worked mostly in the fields, with the crops, out of sight and out of mind….

Now they are turning up in the building trades, in construction, factories and places where brown faces have historically been rarely seen in the USA, in the non-farm workplaces….

The Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Hernandez, this time with a jury that included “you people….”

They found him guilty, too, but that wasn’t the point….


Sean Cruz writes:

Blogolitical Sean, political commentary here:

Today, March 21, is/was/would-have-been my late son Aaron’s birthday.

I’m spending the day getting my vegetable garden ready for planting, thinking about my son, about how happy he was to be home here with me for those few precious months in 2003….

Turning the soil, making some new raised beds, carrots on my mind….

Aaron was the most willing of my four children to work in the garden with me, and I have dozens of photos of Aaron at different ages, in a succession of gardens, the seasons changing, so clearly happy to be working with me in the earth, with the water, caring for the growing corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers….

Like my father and I, like my father and his, extending as far back beyond memory as life itself: the corn, the tomatoes, the cactus, jalapenos, tortillas fresh with the dawn…frijoles…all the way back to the beginning…before the Spanish came ashore…there were the vegetable gardens….

Each of my four children were/are beautiful in their own unique ways, four original personalities, overflowing with enthusiasm, life did not get better than this…I have the photographs, the videotape, to prove it….

The kidnapping changed all of that….

Aaron was like a growing stalk of corn, promise in every kernel, yanked out of the open soil, crammed into a pot way too small, force-fed the Mormon Kool-Aid….

More on this later….


Sean Cruz writes:

Blogolitical Sean, political commentary here:

Aaron’s Law, regarding child abduction prevention and resolution here:

Jim Pepper House, dedicated to the legacy of the late, great Jim Pepper here:

Portland’s #1 Predatory Towing Horror Story, regarding predatory patrol towing practices here:

Chicano Hero Cesar Chavez, dedicated to the Mexican-American giant, here.

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