More than 1,500 people marched through the streets of Pacoima on Saturday to commemorate the civil rights struggles of the late labor leader Cesar Chavez.
The march first took place in 1993, the year Chavez died. Organizer Ruben Rodriguez said it’s been important to hold the event every year, “to continue to educate and inspire the young people.”
Young people turned out in droves. Dozens of students from Arleta, San Fernando and Sylmar high schools — as well as from other San Fernando Valley campuses — drove, walked or arrived by school bus. Some, like 8th grader Chanyce Rose, had a fuzzy idea of Chavez’s contributions.
“He… I don’t know how to explain it,” she said, needing a prompt.
Others, like Cal State Los Angeles freshman Terry Cerda, said Chavez’s grapes and lettuce boycotts for better working conditions inspired him, even though they happened years before he was born.
“As you can see in this community there’s a lot of Latinos, and for us we feel that he should be seen as a role model,” Cerda said as he gripped a rolled up Mexican flag before the march.
Two friends next to him held the flags of the United States and the Philippines. The three flags represent the three main nationalities of the members of Chavez’s United Farm Workers organization when he co-founded it in 1962.
The banner held by people at the front spelled out the theme of this year’s march: “No Human Being is Illegal.”
Former California State Senator Gil Cedillo, who is running for L.A.'s City Council, told a gathering crowd from the flatbed of a truck that illegal immigrants work very hard jobs.
“And they do so every single day while being vilified on radio and on television 24 hours a day by people who are unaware of what they say, unaware that what they say is not true. Unaware that what they say is anti-American,” Cedillo said.
Cedillo and others called on Congress to pass a law to give undocumented workers legal status in the United States. The people marching in Pacoima believe Chavez would have supported such a move.
There’s been much discussion among historians, and people on both sides of the illegal immigration issue, about Chavez’s views on the matter. Chavez supporters don’t dispute that he and the UFW reported undocumented strike-breakers to federal immigration authorities in the 1970s.
Maria Mercedes Arredondo, who teaches English as a second language in high school, said as she marched that the issue of illegal immigration is something that tears apart many of her students in this northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley.
“Sometimes they come crying to tell us that their parents were deported,” she said.
Marchers carried homemade signs that read, “We are the future, not criminals,” and “Keep our families together.”
As Aztec dancers, middle-aged activists, and high school cheerleaders and band members spilled from Brand Park in Mission Hills on their way to Ritchie Valens Park in neighboring Pacoima, one of Chavez’s kin looked on with a smile.
“These high school students in the San Fernando Valley are the seed that hopefully sparks a movement,” said Andres Chavez, the late labor leader's 19-year-old grandson, “that will grow throughout the United States and hopefully worldwide.”