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A Day for César Chávez

Federal day on hold, but states honor activist

César Chávez, founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), takes a break during work on the community garden at UFW headquarters in La Paz, California, in 1975.

Cathy Murphy/Getty Images

En español | Nearly 20 years since his death and 46 years since he led his first strike — against California grape growers — Washington is considering honoring César Chávez’s birthday.

Rep. Joe Baca, a California Democrat, has recently introduced a bill that would mark every fourth Friday of March to be observed as César E. Chávez Day.  The labor leader was born on March 31.

“Encouraging the establishment of a day of recognition is the correct way to remember this man who defines respect, dignity and hope for so many Americans,” says Baca.

In his 2008 presidental campaign, President Obama said he supported the creation of a federal holiday for Chávez. Although Baca’s legislation falls short of doing that, as was done after years of struggle for Martin Luther King Jr., there could be good reasons to create a day of remembrance.

“It’s been a while since Latinos have had a leader and especially a national leader,” says Fernando Chávez, 60, the labor leader’s oldest son.

A Pew Hispanic Center poll conducted late last year determined there’s no Latino leader alive that can compete with Chávez’s stature and that “the job is open” for a new national Hispanic leader. When asked in an open-ended question to name the person they consider “the most important Latino leader in the country today,” nearly 64 percent of the Hispanics polled by Pew said they did not know. An additional 10 percent said “no one.” The most frequently named individual — cited by 7 percent of the respondents — was Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appointed in 2009 to the Supreme Court.

Baca’s efforts may stumble, at least for now, because Republican House Speaker John Boehner has banned consideration of most honorific resolutions. But 10 states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin — have established state holidays to honor Chávez, and others are considering doing so.

Nan Orrock, a Democratic state senator in Georgia, is cosponsor of a bill that would make Chávez’s birthday a holiday in her state. “Chávez really towers over ordinary Americans,” she says. Orrock says she was asked by Latinos in Georgia — a rapidly growing community — to initiate the campaign for a state holiday. If states like Georgia take the lead on the issue, she says, “it sends the right message to Congress.”