PORTLAND — Gov. Paul LePage may not have been at Wednesday’s annual observance of Cesar Chavez’ birthday, but he was definitely on the minds of organizers.

LePage, who turned down an invitation to attend the event held at Portland’s First Parish Church, recently ordered state Department of Labor officials to remove a mural depicting scenes from Maine’s labor history and to rename conference rooms in the offices, including one that was named for the late farm worker organizer.

“The can take a painting down, they can take the names of history down from the conference rooms, but they cannot take our voices and that’s why we’re here today,” said Jose “Joey” Lopez, Maine State Director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Chavez, who died in 1993, created the United Farm Workers, a union representing mostly migrant farm workers, particularly in California. The union fought for decades before being recognized by California’s growers, especially those who own vineyards and farms where lettuce and
other vegetable crops are grown and mostly harvested by migrant workers.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Chavez and the UFW organized walkouts of tens of thousands of farm workers and nationwide boycotts against California table grapes and lettuce.

Chavez came to Portland during the boycott, holding a noontime rally in Lincoln Park on Aug. 6, 1974 that attracted 500 people and calling for a boycott of lettuce, grapes and wine sold in local supermarkets.

About 100 people attended today’s observance. Other speakers at the event, now in its seventh year, made references to the mural and conference rooms controversy, even singing a slightly altered stanza of Woody Guthrie’s farm workers anthem, “Deportees:” They took your name off of a room in the statehouse/ Replaced by a mountain that nobody knows/ But your work, it lives on in the hearts of la gente (the people)/ That are no longer known by the name Deportee.

Attendees sang the song, along with “We Shall Overcome” and “De Colores,” the UFW anthem.

Lopez said that LePage has agreed to a meeting with LULAC representatives, tentatively set for April 12. Lopez said the governor’s actions, like the decision to remove the murals and rename the rooms,
are taking the state backwards and hurting its ability to attract new businesses.

He also said the governor’s proposal to delay benefits to legal immigrants who move to Maine would discourage the creation of new businesses, particularly those that serve minority communities.