Latino phrase motivated movement

Cesar Chavez made a difference for all Latinos
By Ed Fletcher, efletcher@sacbee.com, Mar. 27, 2009

Before there was "Yes We Can," there was "Si Se Puede."

Coined by Cesar Chavez and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, the Spanish phrase that translates to "Yes, it can be done" has become an international chant.

" 'No se puede' was the default, and Cesar was able to change that," said LeRoy Chatfield, a veteran Sacramento activist who worked alongside the late labor crusader. "It's not a slogan, it's a mind-set that says you can accomplish something that others say is impossible."

Born March 31, 1927, Chavez dedicated his life to helping American farmworkers.

His life is celebrated as an official holiday in eight states, including California.

On Thursday, 60 attorneys affiliated with La Raza Lawyers of Sacramento and Women Lawyers of Sacramento gathered for lunch and to reflect on Chavez's legacy.

The event was one of many this week honoring the labor leader.

Chavez helped bring better working conditions for many, but friends and followers say his lasting legacy is the sense of empowerment he gave to Latino Americans and other recent immigrants.

"In the process of convincing farmworkers that they could make change happen, he also convinced millions of other people who never worked on a farm," said Marc Grossman, a longtime spokesman for the United Farm Workers union.

Chavez said as much in a 1984 address to the Commonwealth Club of California: "Hispanics across California and the nation who don't work in agriculture are better off today because of what the farmworkers taught people about organization, about pride and strength. … You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore."

On Thursday, David Villarino-Gonzalez, Chavez's son-in-law and president of the Farmworker Institute for Education and Leadership Development, told the Sacramento lawyers that Chavez's organizational lessons can help them with challenges that remain.

"The one thing – out of all the things that Cesar really demonstrated – was the power of mobilizing people for change," Villarino-Gonzalez said.

That message captured Art Torres' attention and became a compass point through his time in law school at University of California, Davis, in Sacramento as a state senator and as chairman of the California Democratic Party.

It was an early, failed run for a state Assembly seat that pushed Torres to join Chavez.

"That is when I went to work for Cesar for five bucks a week and all I could eat," Torres said.

Torres recalled Chavez saying that if people he was fighting for lived in poverty, then so should he and his staff members.

"I really pissed my father off," said Torres, whose family had left farm work for an urban life, only to see him return to the fields as an organizer.

But Torres didn't stay in the fields. Armed with Cesar's lessons, Torres became one of dozens of politicians who got their start under Chavez's tutelage.

In the Legislature, Torres worked with the UFW to introduce and pass the groundbreaking Agriculture Labor Relations Act – the first and only state law that specifically gives farmworkers the right to organize.

Chatfield said it's hard to overstate Chavez's impact.

"He empowered an entire generation of Latinos in this country," Chatfield said. "Because of that movement, they as a group have made tremendous strides."

He noted the time the late Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna broke down and cried in the middle of an address on the steps of the state Capitol. Serna later explained to Chatfield that "he would not be there without Cesar Chavez."

Serna's sentiment is among the lessons that 17-year-old Carolina Beltran teaches. Beltran never met Chavez – she was an infant when he died in 1993 – but the Nevada Union High School senior was so inspired by Chavez that she has dedicated herself to teaching younger kids about his life.

"It's just remarkable that a human being could dedicate his entire life to a cause," Beltran said.

With the help of her Spanish Club mates, she began staging assemblies at area elementary schools to talk about how Chavez – in the same vein as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. – used non-violent methods to bring about change.

"I want more people to know about him," she said. "We get somewhere, but it's not without a battle. You have to speak up for what you believe in."

Comments