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Navy names ship for Cesar Chavez, but controversy hasn't died down yet

Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The criticism lobbed at the U.S. Navy since last week by some politicians and pundits for its decision to name a ship after the late labor leader and civil rights icon Cesar Chavez didn't stop the Navy from moving forward.

Last week, the Navy formally announced that the latest ship in its Lewis and Clark class of cargo vessels would be named for Chavez, who served in the Navy between 1944 and 1946, to honor the many Latino shipbuilders responsible for the construction of these and other ships. But the firestorm that has surrounded the vessel's name has yet to completely die down.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, a Republican from East San Diego County and former Marine who set off the controversy after he complained about the Navy's decision, has now introduced legislation directing the Secretary of the Navy to name the next available ship after the late Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta.

Peralta, a green card holder who grew up in San Diego, was recommended posthumously for a Medal of Honor after accounts that he smothered a grenade with his body in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, saving fellow troops. The medal is the highest distinction awarded for service. After a Defense Department board questioned whether he actually pulled the grenade under him, it was later decided to award him Navy Cross instead, a decision that outraged many Marines.

From a letter that Hunter wrote to Navy secretary Ray Mabus:

Naming the last ship in the Lewis and Clark-class after anyone other than hometown hero Rafael Peralta misses a valuable opportunity to honor the service and sacrifice of a U.S. Marine who was wrongfully denied the Medal of Honor. Even with this class of ships dedicated to visionaries and pioneers, there is no better choice than Sergeant Peralta for his service and sacrifice.

Over the past week, the naming of the ship after Chavez became a conservative cause celebre. Most famously, talk show host Glenn Beck compared naming a ship for Chavez to naming a "USS Stalin," or a "USS Margaret Sanger" whose cannons would "shoot out fetuses."

The controversy also angered many Latinos. In a recent opinion piece on the News taco site, Texas political science professor Henry Flores wrote about the political objection to naming a ship after Chavez:

Some would call it racism, and I guess it is, but it also reflects a great deal of historical ignorance. I’m not saying that these folks are dumb, what I am saying is that they never learned how important Cesar Chavez is, not only Latinos, but to the entire country. This ignorance results partially from the  exclusion of Latinos from our history books, and from every day public discourse.