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L.A. Unified to observe Chavez Day

March 28, 2009|Ruben Vives

Two years ago, 500 middle school and high school students skipped classes in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles and marched to demand that Cesar Chavez's birthday become a holiday.

In August 2000, legislators and former Gov. Gray Davis had approved a state bill establishing March 31, Chavez's birthday, as a state holiday, becoming the first in the country to honor a Latino or organized labor figure.

The bill, however, omitted public schools, leaving the decision to close for the day to local school boards.

This week, the Los Angeles Unified School District's Board of Education passed a resolution allowing the state holiday to become an official school holiday.

"Naming a holiday after Cesar Chavez is long overdue," said school board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who introduced the resolution.

"Our students deserve to know the legacy of this courageous civil rights leader, they need to have a role model they emulate and they should have opportunities to engage in community service as a way of giving back and learning about servant leadership."

Chavez, who died in 1993 at the age of 66, gained attention in the 1960s as the leader of the United Farm Workers union, staging a massive grape boycott to bring national attention to wealthy growers' harsh treatment of poor farmhands. His early fights were marked by bitter, often brutal, altercations between farmers and workers.

But Chavez, an advocate of nonviolent protest, prevailed and won numerous concessions from farmers.

In his later years, he became something of a kindly, Gandhi-type leader to urban Latinos but continued to push hard for the causes he believed in. In 1988, to protest pesticide use, he staged a 36-day, water-only fast that nearly killed him.

The resolution by the Los Angeles school board calls for Supt. Ramon Cortines to report to the board in 90 days with a plan to replace another holiday with Cesar Chavez Day.

The board is looking at substituting it for Admission Day, which commemorates California's statehood on Sept. 9, 1850. The district provides a paid day off in late August for Admission Day, one of about 12 paid holidays for staff.

"We honor [Chavez's] life not only for what he did, but for the legacy of justice and hope he has endowed us with," school board member Richard Vladovic said. "Yes we can, and yes we will."

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ruben.vives@latimes.com

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