Union founder remembered

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Anthony Chavez, center, leads a march in honor of his grandfather, legendary farm workers' rights leader Cesar Chavez, March 28 in Anderson, Calif. The 26-year-old is working to carry on his grandfather's legacy.

Grandson, others work to continue Chavez's legacy

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

ANDERSON, Calif. -- When Anthony Chavez was a young boy, he had no idea that the grandfather he loved to spend time with was a legend.

"He was mainly just a friendly, fun-loving grandfather," the 26-year-old Sacramento resident said. "He always had time for us grandchildren."

Chavez was in third grade when his grandfather, civil rights leader and United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez, died in 1993. A tree was dedicated to the champion of farm laborers at the boy's school, amid an outpouring of adoration that included then-President Bill Clinton's posthumously awarding the elder Chavez the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Latinos, farmworkers and others celebrated the 50th anniversary of the start of Chavez's movement on March 31, his birthday.

Anthony Chavez is working to carry on the legacy, traveling around to speak to schoolchildren and community groups about his grandfather's cause.

"I think the message is not to forget that farmworkers are out there with human hands picking our fruits and vegetables," he said, adding that work still must be done to improve conditions. "Even though the laws may appear to be the best in Sacramento, unfortunately the rules in the field are much harsher."

A self-proclaimed "student activist," Chavez led a commemorative march here March 28, followed by a dinner and celebration at which 15 first-generation college-bound students were presented scholarships by a local Latino group.

"The end of all education should be service to others," Chavez quoted his grandfather as saying.

One of those moved by the younger Chavez's appearance was 63-year-old Margaret Delgado Crandell, a retired teacher and one-time farm laborer who marched with the elder Chavez in Hollister, Calif., in the early 1970s.

"We were just amazed at this gentleman's passion for wanting to help the people who worked in the fields," she said of Cesar Chavez.

Crandell recalled toiling with others during harvests of sugar beets, tomatoes, garlic, onions, cherries and apricots.

"We'd thin the plants, and there were these huge rows," she said. "At that time we were using a short hoe, and he changed that because people were having a lot of injuries."

Improving conditions in the fields drove the Arizona-born Cesar Chavez, a Navy veteran who met his wife while working in fields and vineyards around Delano, Calif. Having become an activist in the 1950s, Chavez is best known for organizing field strikes, marches and boycotts that led to such farmworker benefits as collective bargaining and state unemployment and disability insurance.

In 1962 he formed the National Farm Workers Association, which later became UFW. Crandell met Chavez just as he was coming off a 25-day fast to protest an anti-union law in Arizona (the rights leader did a 38-day fast in 1988 to protest pesticide poisoning of workers).

"It affected me," she said of his movement. "It was a period when I was 19 or 20. The feeling I got today seeing this young man (Anthony) was exactly the way I felt seeing his grandfather."

Anthony Chavez -- one of Cesar Chavez's 31 grandchildren -- aims to continue his grandfather's mission with the help of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, which was created by family members and seeks to "enrich and improve the lives of farmworker and Latino families," according to its website.

The movement still faces many challenges. Today just a tiny fraction of nearly a half-million farmworkers in California is operating with a contract, and a rift within the Chavez family threatens to obscure the legacy, the New York Times has reported.

So when the younger Chavez speaks, it's not just a history lesson. He remains in tune with current issues affecting laborers. In an interview, he:

* Cheered the Tokyo-based Arysta LifeScience Inc.'s recent decision to pull methyl iodide from the U.S. market after environmentalists and farmworkers claimed the chemical is toxic and may cause cancer.

* Lamented a lack of protection for farmworkers from summer heat. Last year the state investigated two cases of farmworkers who collapsed while harvesting crops and fined a labor company $74,125 after the death of a farmworker in Blythe, Calif.

* Voiced support for the AgJobs immigration reform proposal, recalling that Cesar Chavez strongly opposed illegal immigration because it undermined the movement's credibility. Moreover, growers were hiring undocumented workers to break strikes, he said.

Most of all, Anthony Chavez said he wanted people to know that change is possible.

His grandfather's legacy "is to remind folks that if change can be made in the field, it can be made in the schools, it can be made in the cities, it can be made in the capitals and it can be made in the nations," he said.

Online

Cesar Chavez Foundation: www.chavezfoundation.org

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