César Chávez Day

Friday, March 29, 2024, 10:30am

TO: SSU Campus Community
FR: Jerlena Griffin-Desta, Ph.D., Chief of Staff, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives & Diversity

Each year when we observe César Chávez Day, I think about the enormity of his mission and his accomplishments. Most Americans know him for the United Farm Workers of America and its historically momentous slogan, Si se Puede! (roughly translated to “yes, it can be done”), a powerful chorus that acknowledges challenges while also projecting optimism and enthusiasm. Optimism that farm workers could be equitably represented through unionization and its shared benefits, and enthusiasm for the cause of social justice and the potential for an egalitarian society.

Chávez seemed to understand the importance of coalition and building community ties, which really became a central piece of his advocacy. Along with the esteemed Dolores Huerta, he worked with prominent politicians, civil liberties organizations, and other community leaders to raise awareness, empower workers, transform 
labor practices and laws, and foster greater civic education and participation. He was one of the first civil rights leaders to proudly advocate for the LGBT (now LBGTQIA+) community. Inspired by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and
St.Francis, among others, Chávez employed non-violent methods of protest and advocacy to raise awareness and foster social change. He also worked to ensure that his movement
manifested his core values, including respect for life and the environment, service to others, 
celebrating community, and acceptance of all people. 

In fact, the movement itself depended on a significant alliance with the Filipino and Filipino American communities, many of whom also worked on the farms and in canneries. Where the Mexican workers had Chávez, Larry Itliong organized Filipino workers, each man establishing and leading different organizations: the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (Itliong) (AWOC - part of the AFL-CIO), and the National Farm Workers of America (Chávez). Larry Itliong had been in the U.S. since 1920, experiencing the long history of sentiment and violence against Asians and Asian Americans. Itliong began the 1965 Delano grape strike and boycott, with Chávez signing on after some initial hesitancy. The strike was incredibly effective once the two organizations banded together, ultimately becoming the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO (UFW). While Itliong eventually left the UFW, both leaders remained part of an ever-growing, overlapping network of organizations, coalitions, unions, and advocacy allies. They initiated change. And this year, because we observe César Chávez Day on the eve of the first day of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month at SSU, we celebrate them together.

Everything Chávez and Itliong stood and fought for remains an ongoing cause, including the condition of agricultural workers, many of whom are undocumented and therefore especially vulnerable to exploitation. Where there continues to be inequity and intolerance, we need more community engagement, we need more advocacy, and we need more alliance development. On this day to honor the immense achievements and constructive social influence of César Chávez, I think about where we’re at today, at this moment, and I wonder if we can succeed at such a broad-scale campaign as, say, the Delano grape strike and boycott in 1965 California. I believe the answer is Si se Puede!, but not without the willingness to step outside of the familiar and risk forging a new set of relationships and shared goals.