Evilina Alarcon's mission is almost complete. For the past year, working nights and weekends, spreading the word from churches to concerts, she has championed a cause that suddenly seems second to none among the soaring number of Hispanics who call California home.

What she and many other Hispanic leaders here want is something that no state in the nation has done: to honor Cesar Chavez, the legendary hero to migrant farm workers, with a full state holiday and mandatory classroom instruction on his life. And now, seven years after his death at age 66, California is on the verge of doing just that.

"This is a beautiful movement coming from the ground up," said Alarcon, a community activist in East Los Angeles. "We're proving that there's so much passion for this day."

The campaign to declare a holiday in tribute to Chavez, who founded the United Farm Workers a generation ago and waged epic labor strikes in the fields on workers' behalf, is in many ways a tale of how the nation's most populous, most diverse state is changing--and how fast.

Every attempt to create a Chavez holiday during the last decade fell flat, either stymied in the legislature or vetoed by California's governor at the time, Republican Pete Wilson. The defeats hardly created an uproar. But these days, state lawmakers who are advocating the holiday appear to have the votes they need to get it passed and signed into law, for a striking reason: More than ever, they are the votes.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing portion of California's giant electorate and occupy nearly one-fifth of the seats in the state legislature, including the speaker's chair. Demographers are forecasting that in five years, Hispanics will make up one-third of the state's population, up from one-fourth in 1990. Just about the last thing most politicians, Democrat or Republican, want to do here anymore is antagonize that constituency--especially by balking at memorials to a man many Hispanics regard as a latter-day saint.

The story is the same in two other border states that have large and growing Hispanic populations, Arizona and Texas. Both also adopted Chavez holidays recently, each more limited than the one proposed for California, because they were facing new pressure from Hispanic activists. In Arizona, where Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, the holiday for him even received support from Republican legislators worried that a vote against the bill could galvanize Hispanic voters against their party in the November elections.

California lawmakers have been deluged in recent months with petitions demanding a Chavez holiday and with tens of thousands of postcards bearing his portrait and comparing him to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Rallies to promote the Chavez holiday have been staged around the state.

One version of the bill has sailed through the state Senate this year, with Republicans abstaining, and its prospects look good in the Assembly, where Democrats have a strong majority. Even some GOP Assembly members are suggesting that backing the holiday could be a good way for the party to reach out to Hispanics. The proposal could soon reach the desk of Gov. Gray Davis (D). Although he has been publicly circumspect, Davis's aides say he has "deep respect" for Chavez.

The measure would designate Chavez's birthday as a paid annual holiday for state workers. But public schools would remain open. Teachers would have to spend part of the day giving California's nearly 6 million students lessons on Chavez and leading them in an afternoon of community service in his name. No such rules are in place in either Arizona or Texas, where the new Chavez holidays are mostly symbolic.

"This is historic. This is extraordinary," said Richard Polanco, a Democratic state senator from Los Angeles who is the chief sponsor of the holiday in the legislature. "It is the right thing to do."

Yet it also is provoking an emotional debate. First, there are disagreements and concerns over how much the Chavez holiday would cost. Some state officials contend the price tag for wages and lost productivity of state workers could be three times as high as the $11 million that Polanco and his allies are projecting. Others say that the 13 paid holidays state employees already have each year are enough.

Even some Hispanic leaders are asking whether the gesture is the most appropriate way to honor Chavez. Some say the money would be better spent on new programs to improve the plight of farm workers, most of whom would still be toiling long hours in the fields on the holiday.

One state lawmaker, Democrat Dean Florez of Bakersfield, has said the holiday measure is long on symbolism but short on real commitment to the pressing needs of California's migrant workers.

In light of those questions, lawmakers initially scaled back the measure, excluding public school educators from getting the day off, to lower costs. But then the United Farm Workers objected, saying it is vital to promote Chavez's legacy among California students. The latest compromise emerged this month.

Arturo S. Rodriguez, Chavez's successor as president of the United Farm Workers, which has about 27,000 members in California, praised the new plan for the holiday. "It would be what Cesar was all about," he said. "We can't think of a more meaningful way to honor his legacy."

Chavez's family also is expressing strong support, saying the legislature should create the holiday and increase health care and housing aid to farm workers--not choose one or the other. "I really think farm workers will indirectly benefit from honoring my father's life and work this way," said Paul Chavez, 42.

Beginning in the 1960s, Cesar E. Chavez, the son of migrant workers, spent three decades fighting for the dignity of grape pickers and other farm workers, nearly all Hispanic, who have long been a backbone of California's agricultural economy, one of the largest in the world. For that, he became an inspiration to Hispanic Americans across the country. Chavez was beloved by farm workers for his soft-spoken but fierce leadership, embodied in his blunt rallying cry, "Si se puede," or "It can be done."

And his spirit continues to inspire--in high-rise office buildings, not just farm fields.

In a large, bitter strike unfolding over the past few weeks across Los Angeles, thousands of janitors, most of them new immigrants from Mexico and Central America, have been invoking Chavez's name as they demanded a $1-an-hour salary increase for each of the next three years to help lift them out of poverty. Clustered on street corners in business districts at rush hour, they chanted, "Si se puede." Negotiators Saturday reached a tentative agreement, to be voted on today.

Only a few California cities pay homage to Chavez with a holiday. A few school districts have stitched his life and work into their curricula. Streets and plazas have been renamed in his honor all over the state, and every year his death is commemorated with marches and ceremonies.

But as California's Hispanic population keeps growing--and keeps getting more energized politically--so too does the clamor to do even more in Chavez's memory.

Alarcon and her troops, with the help of celebrities such as Carlos Santana and Edward James Olmos, have persuaded dozens of county governments to pass resolutions in support of a holiday. They also have bombarded the capital in Sacramento with 100,000 petitions and postcards. Alarcon, who contends that schools have not taught her two teenagers much about Chavez, said Hispanic leaders in other states are calling with vows to launch their own campaigns for him once a holiday here becomes law.

"This has spread like wildfire," she said. "It is so significant to us, and it may be just the beginning."