Chanting “Si se puede” or “Yes we can,” farmworkers and community members took to the streets on Saturday for Merced’s first ever celebration in honor of Cesar Chavez.
Chavez, a civil rights leader best known for establishing the United Farmworkers union, is honored in many parts of the country, especially in California. Event organizers said that it only makes sense that Merced, a town where farmworkers make a large portion of the population, also join the annual celebrations.
Participants started on M and 16th Streets and marched down to McNamara Park on 11th and Canal Streets. The iconic red UFW flag rested on the front of a pickup truck that moved forward at the tail of the procession. On the bed of the pickup, waving a Mexican flag, stood Juan Vasquez, a former Livingston Middle School teacher who said he marched alongside Chavez more than once.
“He (Chavez) was really quiet and mellow,” Vasquez said. “But he’d be really proud to see this.”
Vasquez, 65, shared that at the age of 12, his family moved from Guadalajara, Mexico to Livingston to work in the fields. His father, a conservative and traditional man, discouraged his children from joining the strikes and marches organized by Chavez.
“He was afraid he’d lose his job,” Vasquez said. “But as a teenager, I felt I had nothing to lose.”
Saturday’s march, he said, was a reminder of how far along the farmworking community has come, but also of the work that still needs to be done.
Community leaders said the event, put on by a number of local nonprofits and organizations, is one way to come together and bring visibility that in Merced there are a large number of farmworkers and immigrants who still lack basic rights.
For example, the need of health care for undocumented farmworkers was one of the messages shared throughout the four-hour event.
“Farmworkers now have bathrooms, a minimum wage, but they still lack a basic human right, which is health care,” said Crissy Gallardo, of the Merced Organizing Project.
Gallardo shared that she and other community members will travel to Sacramento on April 15, when new legislation pushing for health care for all, regardless of immigration status, will be introduced.
As to why it took Merced so long to organize an event in honor of Cesar Chavez, organizers said it may have to do with a lack of culture appreciation.
“We’ve been taught to assimilate,” Gallardo said. “In our history books we’re not learning about leaders of colors,” she said, recalling reading only a small paragraph about Cesar Chavez in school textbooks.
Maria Barajas, an internal organizer for the UFW, said Merced was in need of an event such as Saturday’s, mainly because it helps bring farmworkers together. At the event, these workers learned about the benefits of becoming part of the union. Barajas explained that members are offered discounts for various services such as cellphone and hotel services, as well as life insurance. Members are also given a photo ID that can serve as a secondary identification.
Organizers said they plan on making this a yearly event, and hope that as the word spreads the number of people who participate grows.
John Flores, of Challenged Family Resource Center in Merced and fourth-year student at UC Merced, said the event was an example of successful grassroots efforts – following Chavez’s footsteps.
“This is one way to create an event that brings awareness and a passion for activism to the community,” Flores said, “We also want to get younger people involved and pass on Chavez’s legacy.”
Saturday’s event concluded with a youth art contest and live music.
Sun-Star staff writer Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.