Modesto celebrates the legacy of César Chávez with family event

naustin@modbee.comMarch 29, 2014 

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Jorge Perez, director of parent and community involvement with Modesto City Schools, speaks about growing up in a farmworking family and how Cesar Chavez influenced his father to insist he get an education at Cesar Chavez Park in Modesto, Calif., on Saturday, March 29, 2014.

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— The movie devoted to the man and his cause opened Friday, but César Chávez has been celebrated for 18 years in Modesto.

The César E. Chávez Family Day Celebration filled the Maddux Youth Center on Saturday with speeches, poetry, cultural dances, and booths offering information and tasty tostadas.

Chávez rose to national prominence through his nonviolent campaign to win higher wages, better working conditions and respect for farmworkers. He began organizing farmworkers in the 1950s and, in 1962, he founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.

On Saturday, Jorge Perez remembered Chávez for the influence the man had on his father.

“I remember when I was 13 years old. My dad came home. He’d worked 12 hours in the field. He was tired. He was dirty,” Perez said. “His pants, the knees, were torn. He said, ‘(My son), I’m working like an animal in the field – not for me, for you. I’m killing myself in the fields – not for me, for you. You will be the first in the family to graduate from junior high.’ 

“Thank you, Señor Chavez. You encouraged kids to get an education,” he said. Perez did graduate from junior high school, and later college. He went on to get a master’s degree.

“He wanted us to work in different fields, in educational fields,” said Perez, director of parent and community involvement with Modesto City Schools.

The film “Cesar Chavez,” starring Michael Peña, is bringing new attention to the iconic leader with its focus on Chávez’s table-grape boycott. The first grape strike started in Delano in 1965 and spread in the Central Valley. A lettuce and vegetable strike followed, along with rising public support. A Harris Poll showed 17 million Americans boycotting grapes in the early 1970s.

Chávez and the UFW played an instrumental role in the passage in 1975 of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gave farmworkers the right to seek union representation and bargain collectively. After Chávez died in 1993, California declared a state holiday on March 31, his birthday.

He is remembered for his slogan “¡Si, se puede!” or “Yes, we can!” which continues to resonate as a rallying cry to workers for social justice.

Modesto City Schools joined with the city of Modesto’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department to put on the day.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin. Staff writer Sharon Ghag contributed to this report.

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