The can-do spirit of late civil rights leader Cesar Chavez was invoked Thursday to inspire a new generation in Modesto.
More than 300 guests, including some 120 area students, attended a celebration of the life and legacy of the United Farm Workers of America co-founder, hosted by the Latino Community Roundtable of Stanislaus County. The 14th annual Cesar E. Chavez Si Se Puede Empowerment Luncheon featured a keynote address by his successor and current UFW president, Arturo Rodriguez.
“That legacy of Cesar continues to live on in a very powerful way,” said Rodriguez, who led the group in a chant of the UFW’s slogan, “Si Se Puede,” or “Yes You Can.”
“I’ll be talking a little about empowerment, because I think everyone in this room knows about that in some particular way,” Rodriguez said. “If you have the fire in the belly, you can do just about anything.”
Rodriguez, who just a few weeks ago met with President Barack Obama to discuss immigration reform, brought his message of the union’s work and Chavez’s mission to the audience, which included students from junior high and high schools in Modesto, Patterson, Riverbank, Ceres and elsewhere.
Among those in attendance were more than half a dozen Hispanic Youth Leadership Council members from Gregori High School in Modesto. Club president Lyliana Jimenez said she wanted to come to get a stronger sense of history.
“It’s about our heritage and learning where our roots are. We have to be proud of where we came from,” said the 18-year-old.
Several students from Cesar Chavez Junior High School in Ceres also attended. The school’s learning director, Lucia Alfaro, said this is the second year they’ve brought students to the luncheon.
“It’s nice for them to be here and get a sense of community. To get some inspiration to know that they can make a difference in their community starting even in junior high,” she said. “And to meet other community members striving for the same goal.”
Since 1997, Latino Community Roundtable, a volunteer nonprofit group, has worked to improve the political, social and economic conditions of Latinos in the county. Its president, Maggie Mejia, praised the crowd, which included local dignitaries and representatives from several area businesses, for helping the group with its mission over the years.
“This wonderful community of Stanislaus County is always there when the Latino Community Roundtable calls,” she said.
Most of the students at the event had been sponsored by community and corporate leaders.
Awards were handed out to honor current and former Roundtable supporters. Posthumous honors were given to the families of Luis Bustamante Sr. and Guillermo Ochoa, both of whom died earlier this year.
A Cesar Chavez Legacy Award was given to John and Rosenda Mataka of Grayson, who have been active in social justice throughout Stanislaus County for more than 20 years.
Like Rodriguez, Rosenda Mataka called on the audience members to keep fighting for what they believe is right.
“Is this struggle for education, for a place to live, for good things to eat, is that struggle over? I don’t think so,” she said. “If you struggle for progress in your community, your state, your world, keep it up. Si se puede.”