More than 300 people celebrated labor activist Cesar Chavez’s efforts Saturday.
Supporters marched through the downtown Barelas neighborhood to the National Hispanic Cultural Center. More than 100 people stayed to enjoy live music and dance performances in Chavez’s honor at the NHCC.
“He was more than an advocate for farmworkers,” UNM student and attendee Mary Silva said. “He gave all working people the strength to stand up for fair working conditions, fair wages — and that resonates to all areas where inequality exists. It empowers people to do something about inequality.”
In 1963, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which would later become the United Farm Workers. Chavez spent most of his adult life advocating for farmworkers. He famously survived two hunger protests — one that lasted 25 days and another that lasted 36 days — and used media to promote justice.
Chavez has a long-standing legacy as one of the most famous labor organizers in U.S. history. He not only made working conditions safer for farmworkers, but he helped enact collective bargaining agreements that gave workers a strong voice when negotiating with land owners.
Co-founder of the UFW, Dolores Huerta, was the keynote speaker at Saturday’s local event. In her speech, she touched on her time organizing with Chavez.
“Everybody got involved in terms of politics, so we were supposed to be of service to others,” she said. “You’re not supposed to want to get any sort of recompense when you help people. You do it because they need help.”
She said that as a teacher, she became aware about the struggles workers faced.
“I was teaching school and seeing a lot of children in my classroom who were children of farmworkers,” she said. “They would come to school in their raggedy shoes and their little bones sticking out of their T-shirts. I was really upset about that.”
A month before her orientation to become a full-time teacher, Huerta decided to quit her profession and organize for farmworkers, despite having seven children.
“So here I am going to go start organizing farmworkers for no money,” she said. “So many ways I thought, ‘This was such a foolish thing to do. How are you going to run off and join the circus with your seven children and not know where your next meal is coming from?’”
Huerta talked about some of her biggest accomplishments with the UFW, which included the 1965 grape boycott that resulted in a collective bargaining agreement between grape workers and farmers. She was also involved in legislation to protect workers. This included a law that allowed California drivers to take their driver’s license test in Spanish and a federal bill that ended the Bracero Program, which imported Mexican workers as farm hands for very little pay.
Huerta was on the stage when Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed in 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Calif. She said she was invited to stand next to the presidential candidate after organizing Latino voters, which propelled Kennedy to win the state’s primary election. She did all this while a member of UFW and worked alongside Chavez in many of her efforts.
Student Jonathan Paiz said Huerta’s story was influential.
“It was amazing to hear her story,” Paiz said. “Her accomplishments are fantastic, and the fact she continues to organize show how … the work of people like her and Cesar Chavez is a long-standing legacy.”