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A 'Chavez Day' in Hard Economic Times

June 20, 1993

To honor the memory of farm labor leader Cesar Chavez, the City of San Fernando last week became the first municipality in California to declare March 31, Chavez's birthday, a legal holiday. Wisely, the new holiday won't cost city taxpayers much because it will replace California Admissions Day as one of the city's 12 legal holidays.

Similarly moved to recognize Chavez--a hero not just to California's large Mexican-American population but to people around the world--state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) has authored a bill that would make Chavez's birthday a statewide holiday.

The bill deserves broad support because the legacy of Chavez is an inspiring one. And San Fernando has shown the way it can be done without too much cost or controversy.

Of course, some controversy is inevitable because Chavez, as he himself readily admitted, was at times controversial. He led the most successful effort ever undertaken to unionize workers in one of California's foremost industries, agriculture. In the process he often battled with powerful interests.

But to Latinos, Chavez was more than a labor leader. He became a symbol of their dreams and aspirations, largely because he was the one Mexican-American leader of national stature. The fact he led a fight to better the wages and working conditions for one of the most powerless segments of the Latino community only adds to the reverence in which his memory is held.

Latinos argue that Chavez's struggle benefited all Californians to some extent. He was one of the first public figures to fight against the excessive use of pesticides in agriculture, before such environmentally conscious positions were popular.

Advocates of the holiday liken Chavez to another controversial man who has since been honored with a holiday now recognized by every state, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both men had a dream that one day people across America would, to paraphrase King's immortal words, be judged not by the color of their skin or their national origin but by the content of their character.

Acknowledging the difficult fiscal situation California currently faces, and not wanting to burden the state with the cost of a legal holiday that would close schools and businesses, Torres has proposed that state legislators follow the San Fernando City Council's lead. The Chavez holiday would either replace an existing holiday, like Admissions Day, or it would be phased in, first as a statewide day of commemoration, then, in several years, as a full-fledged holiday.

But whatever solution is worked out in Sacramento, some kind of annual commemoration of Cesar Chavez is appropriate.

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