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Chavez's Message Bore Fruit Even in the Big City

April 26, 1993|GEORGE RAMOS

As I write this, I'm looking at a little red button with a black Aztec eagle on it. I dug it out of a dusty desk drawer at home to remember where I'd come from and perhaps to remind me of where I should be going. It's a memento that I know I'll never throw away.

It was given to me on a windy weekday afternoon about 20 years ago at a Safeway store in East L.A. Members of the United Farm Workers of America were picketing the store to urge shoppers to boycott California table grapes.

The button says, "Boycott grapes."

I'd like to say Cesar Chavez gave the button to me, but he wasn't there. Instead, a high school senior from the San Joaquin Valley town of Sanger did. I don't remember his name, but he said Chavez and the union's struggle were important to many Chicanos in rural America.

I happily accepted the button because I believed that Chavez's message also was just as relevant to Chicanos in the big cities.

The news of Chavez's death in San Luis, Ariz., not too far from where he was born, brought to mind how instrumental he was in igniting the civil rights movement for Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles and urban centers across the country.

In L.A., for example, the early 1960s brought little progress for Chicanos. Many city schools clung to a ban against students speaking Spanish on campuses and offered too few educational opportunities. After Edward R. Roybal was elected to Congress, there was no electable Chicano to follow him on the City Council.

There were neighborhoods in the more affluent areas of L.A. in which Chicanos were discouraged, and even barred, from purchasing homes.

When Chavez formed the United Farm Workers of America in 1965 and began a massive boycott of table grapes, he showed many L.A. Chicanos that they could speak out. If he could stage marches, go on hunger strikes and get arrested for the betterment of migrant workers who harvested America's crops, so could they.

By 1968, the emergence of Chicano activism in L.A. coincided with the heyday of the UFW. In the spring of that year, several thousand Chicano students walked out of five Eastside high schools, demanding an improved curriculum that included Latino history, culture and language. Mexican-American critics of the Vietnam War, especially those on college campuses, marched to protest the high numbers of casualties and the fact that Chicanos were a disproportionately high percentage of the U.S. troops there.

Protest marches demanding better jobs, affordable housing and improved access to a college education were commonplace.

Many of the college-age Chicanos who protested in the late 1960s continued their involvement into adulthood by forming professional groups to offer scholarships and counsel to young Latinos who wanted to join them as engineers, teachers, architects, police officers, lawyers and even journalists. Many of them traced the involvement back to Chavez.

Chavez's hero stature among Latinos was confirmed in a 1983 poll conducted by The Times that asked local Latinos who among their own they most admired. Chavez was the runaway winner.

So when the news came Friday morning that he had died, L.A.'s Chicanos were just as stunned and hurt as the campesinos for whom Chavez had devoted his life.

"One of our idols is gone" was the way the leadership of the local Latino lawyers association put it.

Three politicians who grew up in L.A. and idolized Chavez--Richard Alatorre, Gloria Molina and Art Torres--issued statements calling him "historic," "a man of honor" and a leader who was a "voice and power for farm workers and for millions throughout the world who shared his struggle for justice."

Never mind that Chavez had opposed Molina when she first ran for the state Assembly in 1982. Never mind that he had turned on Alatorre and Torres when they didn't support his candidate in bitter fights for the speakership of the Assembly in about 1980. To the trio, he was still an inspiration. He was still the spark that had gotten them involved.

Joe Sanchez, a leader of the Mexican-American Grocers Assn., a group that came into being partly out of recognition of Chavez's struggles in the fields and orchards, was heartbroken.

"A tragic loss," he said softly.

I suspect a lot of Chicanos reacted as I did when they learned of Chavez's passing. We reached back in time to remember how he made us care more about college, the war or grapes.

I doubt I'll put the button back into that desk drawer again.

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