¡Sí Se Puede! In Honor of Día de César Chávez


Today (if you’re on the west coast, yesterday on the east) was César Chávez’s birthday, known in the western and southwestern parts of the country as César Chávez Day. This afternoon I said to one of my classes, “You know, today’s César Chávez day.” They looked at me blankly. “You know, César Chávez?” More blank stares. “You guys know who that is, right?” “You’re dad?” one of them said. Very funny smartass.

Me and my actual dad, J. David Chavez

Though I’ve never claimed relation to César Chávez, I did once say yes when a girl asked me if I was related to Julio Chávez, the boxer. This happened in California, in Fresno, the city that when I was in high school and attending Our Lady of Victory Catholic church for confirmation classes, there was a girl in the class with my exact same name. Exact. Sarah Ann Chavez. Same spelling. Not only were we both in the same confirmation class, but it turned out we had accounts at the same bank. One day when I went to deposit my paycheck (before the magic of direct deposit and bank apps), I put my debit card in the machine and a weird sound went off and the screen blinked. The words “Please See Bank Teller” began flashing on the pixelated screen.

When I got to the teller and explained to her what happened, she said, “The machine kept the card because you reported it stolen.” “No I didn’t,” I told her. “Yes, you did,” she insisted. I insisted there was a mistake. She was getting increasingly irritated with me. But it was true, I had done no such thing. Turned out the other Sarah Ann Chavez who went to Our Lady of Victory confirmation class had. Luckily even though we were the same age and in geographically close neighborhoods, she had a summer birthday and a different address (obviously), so the teller finally understood and stopped treating me like I was being a jerk. Of course they wouldn’t just give me my card back. Because the machine ate it, apparently it got processed through the machine colon, and became machine fuel; i.e. the card was unretrievable. I had to wait two weeks for a replacement card to come in the mail.

That was some years back. Now if you google my name and “California,” something like two thousand different people pop up. Chavez really is like the “Smith” of Mexican last names.

Anyhow, in that state (where fifty thousand Sarah Chavez’s live), at minority kid camp – a free daytime summer camp held on Fresno State’s campus to encourage children of color to attend college by trying to make them feel comfortable and familiar with the campus before they even get to high school – on the very first day, during registration, a group of Latina and black girls formed a menacing circle around me.

“You know this camp is for not for white girls, right?” the leader of the girls said as the circle around me tightened. I was instantly checking out my options, of which there were few. Unfortunately, I had been reading on a chair up against the wall on the other side of the student union, away from the registration table. They could totally jump me and nothing would happen for at least a solid five minutes.

“I know,” I said.

“Then why are you here, white girl?” she said, saying the word “white” as if was something disgusting, some kind of freakish aberration.

“I’m not white,” I said.

“Oh, yeah?” one of the Latinas said.

“Yeah,” I said, mimicking her, stepping closer to her face. “My last name is Chavez.” They all exchanged looks with one another. Clearly that was not the response they expected.

“Like Chavez? Like Julio Chávez?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Are you related to Julio Chávez?” her eyes got big and the tension in the circle deflated.

“Uh, yeah, he’s my uncle,” I said, feeling fairly confident at that point they weren’t going to kick my ass. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m scrappy and cheap – bitches be going down with me – but I would definitely have lost. And it would have been ugly. You can tell the hair and earring pullers from a mile away.

Luckily, they didn’t push for more information. That was all they needed: a bit of matched attitude, an ethnic last name, and my word that I was related to the famous, six-time world champion, greatest Mexican boxer of all time, Julio César Chávez.

Of course, that story has nothing to do with César Chávez’s birthday and the important historical moment this day should remind of us of. This country, the whole country, is a better place because of this man and the dedicated Chican@s and Fillipin@s who fought for the right to be treated like human beings.

Occasionally on Facebook someone posts this meme:

And that is a funny, light-hearted, yet sincere reminder, though what mostly happens is that people “like” it, feel that they’ve done good, and move on. I’m guilty of this inaction as well. That is one of the reasons observing holidays like this one is so important; it should be a catalyst for the nation as a whole to remind ourselves of the indignities this heartless capitalist system and destructive, reductive colonialist culture has encouraged, and reavow genuine action to prevent taking advantage of the most disenfranchised groups. Whether that is being more mindful of the foods we purchase (where did it come from, what are that companies’ business practices?) or thinking more carefully about the ways we vote (and making sure that we do vote!), even those seemingly small actions can make a material difference.

I may not be blood-related to César Chávez, but I couldn’t feel more proud that I share a surname with this héroe de la nación.

Don't know much about César Chávez? For a short(ish) intro (with videos!) click here

"Chavez left a legacy as an educator, environmentalist, and a civil rights leader. And his cause lives on. As farmworkers and laborers across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages, we find strength in what Cesar Chavez accomplished so many years ago. And we should honor him for what he's taught us about making America a stronger, more just, and more prosperous nation. That's why I support the call to make Cesar Chavez's birthday a national holiday. It's time to recognize the contributions of this American icon to the ongoing efforts to perfect our union."

Senator Barack Obama March 31, 2008.

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