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Celebrating Chavez

Holiday: L.A. helps mark California's first official observance of the labor hero's birthday.

March 31, 2001|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Merely holding hands with Helen Chavez was a thrilling connection to history for sixth-grader Amy Guzman.

So the 11-year-old didn't mind that her conversation with the widow of labor leader Cesar Chavez was brief Friday as they walked together to a school assembly "I heard she was a little shy," said Amy. Another sixth-grader, Kristina Guzman, held the hand of Ethel Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy's widow, as two dozen other children joined in the walk.

The assembly at the Accelerated Charter School, south of downtown Los Angeles, was one of several events Chavez and Kennedy attended Friday to mark the first year that March 31, Cesar Chavez's birthday, is being celebrated as a state holiday.

Helen Chavez and Kennedy were joined at the school assembly by Gov. Gray Davis; state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who sponsored the bill establishing the holiday; Yolanda King, eldest daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and seven children of Helen and Cesar Chavez.

In between speeches by dignitaries, some of the mostly Latino and African American students took the stage to explain Chavez's views on education, service to the community, nonviolence and dignity for all people.

"He fought for everybody, that everybody should have the same law, same respect," Victor Perez, 12, said before the assembly. "He fought for farm workers' justice, because they were dying because of pesticides."

Joselin Montes, 12, said: "Cesar Chavez is an important person to me because my grandfather used to be a farm worker and so was my dad."

Chavez, who died in 1993 at the age of 66, led mostly Latino farm workers in their efforts to gain better wages and working conditions and began the grape boycott that drew attention to their nonviolent struggle.

Last summer, Davis signed a bill establishing the state holiday. A few cities, including San Fernando, Inglewood, San Diego and Sacramento, have also made the day a city holiday, giving municipal employees time off.

Chavez's family says the holiday is a recognition of much more than their patriarch.

"It's really a tribute to those thousands and thousands of people that marched with him," said one of his sons, Paul Chavez, 44.

Yolanda King told the children that Cesar Chavez served as an inspiration to her father in his struggle for civil rights. She said the two men shared common values, including the view that content of character is more important than the color of skin.

Likening the farm worker leader to King and Mohandas K. Gandhi, Gov. Davis said that "the lesson of Cesar Chavez is to [accomplish change] through our heads, not through weapons."

At least two staffers at the Accelerated School, east of Exposition Park, have personal connections to Chavez.

Olivia Irlando, his granddaughter, is a kindergarten teacher there. Kathryn Stevens, now a math and science teacher, organized workers alongside Chavez in the late 1960s and '70s.

"I'm so happy that this day is here, that our students get to learn about this history," Stevens said.

At the assembly, a group of children sang the Mexican folk song "De Colores." On cue, another group of students marched across the stage shouting familiar union chants and carrying signs that read: Viva la Huelga--Long Live the Strike.

Helen Chavez and other members of her family, along with Ethel Kennedy, started the day with a breakfast also attended by union leaders at the Regal Biltmore Hotel downtown.

After the school assembly, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony joined the group for a luncheon back at the Biltmore.

Cesar Chavez events today include observances at:

* El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. Noon to 5 p.m. Storytelling, arts and speakers, including playwright Luis Valdez and state Sen. Polanco.

* Inglewood's Caroline Coleman Stadium, 401 S. Inglewood Ave. 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Parade, film festival and speakers including Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

* St. Vincent's Church, 621 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, with Mass celebrated by Cardinal Mahony at 10 a.m.

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