Labor department recognizes Cesar Chavez and other giants of the Farm Worker movement


Dolores Huerta spoke at the “Pioneers of the Farm Worker Movement” event Monday at the Department of Labor. She cofounded the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

Acknowledging, somewhat redundantly, that he was “a white male Caucasian” before a roomful of Latinos, and asking, as a joke, “Is there a way I can relate to folks here?” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack quickly got around to the go-to phrase for people in his predicament.

“Si, se puede!” Yes we can.

Then Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, took her turn at the microphone.

“How wonderful is it that the guy who got the ‘Si, se puede!’ going was Secretary Vilsack?” she cracked.

There would be many, many more chants of la madre of all political rally cries — some two dozen, all told — but at least for once in official Washington, the overuse of the overused phrase was earned. The purpose of the two-hour ceremony Monday morning in the Labor Department was to induct “Pioneers of the Farm Worker Movement” into the department’s Labor Hall of Honor and to name the department’s auditorium the Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Auditorium.

Before joining the dignitaries on the dais, Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers with Chavez 50 years ago, told the creation story of the famous phrase.

Back in 1972, in Guadalupe, Ariz., Chavez began a 25-day hunger strike to protest anti-farmworker labor laws in that state. Huerta was trying to buck up wavering Latino leaders who doubted that the movement’s victories in California could be duplicated in Arizona.

“No se puede,” they said. No we can’t.

“Si, se puede,” she insisted.

A battle cry was born. Years later, Huerta supported Hillary Rodham Clinton against Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. “Si, se puede!” rang out at rallies of both campaigns, but especially Obama’s, with the English translation equally prominent — “Yes, we can!” When Obama prevailed, Huerta met with the candidate and agreed to support him in the general election.

“I stole your slogan,” Huerta recalls Obama saying with a grin.

“Yes, you did,” she replied.

The Labor event was the perfect institutional Washington celebration, a three-Cabinet-secretary affair (including Labor’s Hilda L. Solis and Interior’s Ken Salazar) plus Jill Biden and about 400 mostly Latino activists, labor leaders, students and government workers. It had everything Washington likes best to sanctify a moment — flags, tears, patriotism and a dash of Hollywood in the form of actor Michael Pena, who is playing Chavez in the coming biopic “Chavez.” A Marines color guard presented the flag, and a mariachi band led the gathering in a procession from one side of the Labor Department to the other.

Officially, the event was non-political, but politics kept winking around the edges. Was it just a coincidence that Chavez and the Farm Workers were honored during a presidential election year, when the Latino vote is dearly desired by both parties?

Yes, said Solis, whose father was a farm worker.

“I wanted to do this two years ago,” she said, but logistics postponed the event. This year coincides with the United Farm Workers’ golden anniversary, too. “They are a part of our American workforce legacy, and there was an opportunity for me to honor the collective work of the unsung heroes who never get any recognition.”

Still, an administration’s heroes are revealing. The George W. Bush administration, under Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, inducted business tycoons Adolphus Busch, John Willard Marriott and Charles R. Walgreen.

Would Eliseo Medina, who helped organize grape boycotts as a teenager and now serves as international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, ever be found sitting in the front row of a Republican VIP conclave? President Obama, meanwhile, proclaimed this Saturday to be Cesar Chavez Day.

“Elections do matter,” said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers.

The auditorium, which has Chavez’s name in large letters above the entrance, is the only memorial to the labor leader in federal Washington, Solis said. In a lobby across from the auditorium, and facing a huge tile mosaic of Chavez made by students in Tucson, is the Hall of Honor, which consists of the names of honorees on clear panels against a marble wall.

Adding gravity to the proceedings was the presence of the families of several movement “martyrs” who were killed during labor struggles.

“I feel a lot of pride,” said Maximina Rosa Contreras, widow of Rufino Contreras, who was shot to death by company foremen during a lettuce strike in California in 1979. “At the same time, it’s hard to remember those moments.”

Even “as a kid, she cared about any kind of struggle,” said Liz Freeman of her sister, Nan Freeman, who was struck and killed by a truck hauling sugar cane as a college freshman who was walking a picket line in solidarity with striking sugar workers in Florida in 1972. Chavez once said of Freeman: “To us, she is a sister.”

Throughout the affair Monday, Huerta was a beloved presence, receiving the biggest ovations and getting mobbed by well-wishers long after the other VIPs had split. Diminutive, self-effacing, but still fierce, dressed in red and black — colors of the Farm Workers’ Aztec eagle logo — she is the movement matriarch at 81. She provided a living link to the early days, even though, as Solis pointed out, the “pioneers” of the movement go back to African American agricultural organizers in the South in the late 1800s.

Huerta recalled sitting in Chavez’s kitchen in East Los Angeles in 1962, when he said they should start a union. She didn’t say, “Si, se puede.”

“I thought he was joking,” Huerta said.

What happened after was enough for celebration in Washington and Hollywood. Rosario Dawson will play Huerta in “Chavez.”

“I’m flattered they’re even including me,” Huerta said.

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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