Why We Need a Cesar Chavez National Day of Service

Many still don't know who the civil rights activist and labor leader is. It's time to change that and spur a national movement to volunteer.
Jul 10, 2014·
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When Google posted a “doodle” on its home page this spring of a Latino man pictured in front of a farm field, the Internet went into conniptions. Latching on to the idea that the image was of "Chavez," the latter-day Joseph McCarthys of Twitter assumed it was a drawing of Hugo Chávez, then the Socialist president of Venezuela. This all happened on March 31, the 86th anniversary of the birth of Cesar Chavez, the labor organizer and civil rights leader.

The man Google honored was an American, not the autocratic leader of a South American nation—an American admired by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Despite starting the United Farm Workers of America (the first union for farmworkers in the history of the United States), leading a hunger strike to improve labor conditions for grape pickers in Delano, California, and starting what became a massive grape boycott that lasted five years, Chavez and his story still sometimes get confused with that of other Cesars and other Chavezes.

It’s fitting, in an ironic way, as Chavez, who died in 1993, was uncomfortable with being singled out for recognition.

“When he was alive, he almost never let anybody name anything after him, and he refused most personal awards—they had to be made to the UFW, not to him,” says Marc Grossman, Chavez's longtime aide and spokesperson, who continues to work as the communications director at the Cesar Chavez Foundation. “And that was because he just knew that there were so many Cesar Chavezes—there were so many people who made great sacrifices and accomplished great things but whose names were unknown.”

But as this video highlighting his life and work shows, not only was Chavez’s legacy historically significant, but the stand he took for civil rights and fair labor resonates today. Grossman believes, “If he knew everything that was being named for him today, he would scold people,” although he thinks there’s one more thing to add to the list of streets and libraries and Navy ships worth naming Chavez: a national day of service.

Instead of March 31 being Confuse Chavezes on the Internet Day—or even Cesar Chavez Day, as President Obama proclaimed it to be in 2011—Participant Media’s Social Action team and the Cesar Chavez Foundation believe the selfless leader’s birthday should be a national day of service. And you can call on the president to declare it that by signing the petition at the bottom of this story.

“I think that the day of service is the one thing that he would not reproach people over. He would be OK with that,” Grossman says. So much so that he believes Chavez would be comfortable with the day bearing his name.

If you need proof that the issues Chavez fought for are still relevant, look no farther than your local drive-through. In the past year, fast food’s largely minority, underpaid workforce has been agitating for better pay. As with Delano's migrant farmworkers, the popular opinion has long been that the fast-food workforce, with its high turnover, could never be organized. A series of escalating strikes have shaken that assumption, and whatever victories fast-food workers achieve, they'll owe a debt of gratitude to Chavez.

“They’re picking the food; they’re some of the nation’s poorest people,” Andres Chavez, the grandson of Cesar Chavez, said of farmworkers on “TakePart Live” last week, “and they can’t even afford some of the luxuries of having food on their table or putting vegetables on their food.”

At the other end of the food chain, restaurant workers are living a similar reality. Not only does Chavez’s legacy live on, but so does the struggle.