After 17 years, the Cesar Chavez Memorial in the City of San Fernando is in need of some attention to restoration and repair. But for now it is receiving more attention for Chavez’s historical achievements.
On Wednesday, March 31 — what would have been the labor leader’s 94 birthday — the Cesar Chavez Commemorative Committee of San Fernando Valley unveiled a plaque at the base of his statue at the memorial.
“(The plaque) identifies him as a civil rights and labor leader. It points out he organized the UFW, co-founded the Farm Workers Union,” said Alex Reza, a member of the Committee and one of the people who spearheaded the construction of the memorial.
Measuring 38 inches across and 28 inches high, the black granite plaque provides biographical information about Chavez and includes one of Chavez’s famous quotes that conveys his philosophy:
“The end of all education should be service to all others.”
The plaque (in part) reads:
Cesar Chavez was a courageous labor leader, community organizer, and civil rights activist. He organized an international movement …As co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union, he recognized the importance of non-violence and education in achieving social and environmental justice for all people. He had the wisdom to see the power in acquiring knowledge, in spite of his limited educational opportunities. His life uplifted and inspired many throughout the nation to take up and advance the struggle for justice that continues to this day.”
It also includes a musical stance in Spanish written by former CSUN professor Veto Ruiz and retired V.I.S.A. high school principal Stan Leandro.
Reza explained the committee sought to include the plaque in part to provide “some information” so people could learn about Chavez when they visit because there was no such actual statement on the mural or at the memorial.
“There’s visual information about his life, but there’s no written narrative. We thought it would be appropriate to give you the basic aspects of his life, some information about why we honor him,” Reza said.
The committee also did not want to let another year go by without honoring Chavez locally. For several years, the committee has organized an annual march in honor of the labor leader. But the pandemic prevented the march from happening in 2020 and this year as well.
“We didn’t want his legacy to be written off because of the virus for two consecutive years,” Reza said.
“A Towering Figure”
Sen. Alex Padilla in a video statement, remembered Chavez’ work with Dolores Huerta to organize and unionize farm workers. He noted the civil rights leader “brought global attention to the plight of farm workers and their families who, for too long, have toiled for low pay in dangerous conditions.”
“He led the most successful boycott in American history getting the support of millions as he fought for and achieved higher wages and less pesticides in the fields,” Padilla said.
The US senator described Chavez as being “a towering figure in American history,” and not only for his individual accomplishments.
“The movement he led was one for justice and dignity for all, a movement that we all must carry on,” Padilla continued. “He believed in your right to dignity and respect.
He spoke glowingly of Chavez’s dogged pursuit of labor rights for essential workers.
“They take care of our loved ones, they keep the supply chain going, they grow and harvest our food. They risk their health and their lives so others can stay safer at home. We cannot in good conscience praise them in one breath, while denying them essential human dignity in the next,” Padilla said.
“Dignity, respect and a pathway to citizenship for essential workers who have earned it is personal to me and it is in the best interest of our nation. Covid relief and economic recovery must be for everyone. The work of Cesar Chavez continues. As he would say, ‘la lucha sigue,’” Padilla concluded.
Unveiled in 2004, the monument along Wolfskill and Truman streets in the City of San Fernando took eight months to complete. It features a 100-foot mural showing the life of the United Farm Workers (UFW) founder, stretching from his birth and early years in Arizona through his time in the Navy during World War II, his fasts and marches, and a bronze sculpture of Chavez and 10 figures depicting farm workers.
Built at a cost of $300,000 with funds provided by the City of San Fernando, Metro, the Cesar Chavez Commemorative Committee and private donors, the monument was designed and created by artist Ignacio Gomez (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Cesar Chavez). He was selected from more than 60 artists who submitted entries.
There is also a rotunda with bricks and for some years there were also brass plaques from donors that contributed more than $1,000 to finance the memorial. But in 2014, 14 of 23 of those plaques were stolen. Replacing them would cost several thousand dollars.
Because of that, the committee decided to create the plaque in granite, which Reza said is not a highly prized substance. “We think we’re safe,” he said
The committee paid for the plaque, which cost $700, from savings they had from last year’s fundraising.
But not having marches in 2020 and this year has stopped the fundraising efforts.
“We have not generated any income. Last year we did all right with fundraising. We got a little bit of money just before the crisis,” Reza said.
The lack of fundraising has also prevented the Committee from having some maintenance performed on the memorial.
Paint on the monument is fading and chipped in several places. Some cracks have also started to appear.
Taking care of those problems would cost a few thousand dollars and could be done by Gomez (the original artist) and an assistant.
The memorial is on city property and, technically, is the city’s responsibility to maintain it, Reza said. “But with the fiscal shortfall, they don’t consider it a high priority to invest in it.”
Nick Kimball, manager for the City of San Fernando, explained the City is “responsible for maintaining the grounds around the Cesar Chavez Memorial and keeping the mural and surrounding areas clean.
“There are currently no plans to restore the Cesar Chavez Memorial as there are no funds budgeted for such an effort,” the city manager said. “Since the mural and memorial are now almost 20 years old, we would definitely be open to working with the Cesar Chavez Committee to raise funds to restore the mural and memorial.”
The financial difficulties the City of San Fernando has faced in recent years also changed the route of the annual Cesar Chavez march.
The local Cesar Chavez March for Justice, first held in the City of San Fernando, was organized soon after the labor leader’s death.The City of San Fernando was the first in the nation to hold the commemorative march and construct a memorial site that followed. For many years, the local Cesar Chavez March was considered a “gem,” attracting hundreds of people, and was another example of the small town leading the way by being the “first.”
The march was an expression of the historic marches led by Chavez and the longtime support given to the UFW from local activists, students, and the community. Students from CSUN’s Chicano/a Studies Department had marched alongside the labor leader since the farmworkers’ movement’s inception.
The local“Marcha”and rally at San Fernando Recreational Park was often attended by members of the Chavez family and the union’s co-founder Dolores Huerta. In keeping with the farmworkers movement, people marched carrying the UFW flag and protest signs that included issues of the day.
The Cesar Chavez memorial followed. But after some time, the City of San Fernando no longer wanted to incur the costs associated with the march; some even considered the event “too radical.” The local city council voted to change San Fernando Recreational Park to Cesar Chavez Park, but while other cities across the nation were renaming their sites for Chavez, the City of San Fernando reverted its largest park back to its original name.
Meanwhile, former LA City Councilmember Richard Alarcon, a supporter of the March, moved it down the road and out of San Fernando to his [then] district in Mission Hills that traveled to Ritchie Valens Park in Pacoima. Still nearby in the Northeast Valley — although attendance waned — the original organizers are still involved today.
If the pandemic continues to lessen, Reza said the committee can try to revive the march next year.
“It makes it harder to keep up his legacy because as time goes by, people tend to forget,” he said. “When you go for two years without a major event you’re losing the opportunity to educate people.
“It’s another of the unfortunate aspects of the virus crisis,” Reza said.