PORTLAND – After two years of annual observances on Cesar Chavez’s March 31 birthday at Portland’s First Parish, the Maine Global Institute will explore the possibility of a conference on Maine’s past, present and future immigration. This will include recognition of the growing national significance of this great farm labor and civil rights icon and what he means for the Pine Tree State.
Conversations with Maine leaders and civic activists make clear the need for an expanded public focus on America’s most prominent Latino leader. This April marks the 20th year since Cesar’s passing, and interest in his national legacy and values is growing.
Last year, San Antonio became the latest American big city to name a major downtown thoroughfare after Chavez. In May, more than 7,000 people witnessed the christening and launching of the USNS Cesar Chavez in San Diego, the first U.S. Navy ship named for a Latino, acknowledging Chavez’s military service. In October, a similar number of people traveled to the Tehachapi Mountains at La Paz in Keene, Calif., headquarters of the United Farm Workers of America. They watched President Obama dedicate the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument as the 398th unit of the National Park Service.
In addition to the farm workers, Chavez inspired millions of Americans who never worked on a farm to social and political activism. Much support for the Gandhi-like figure comes from compassionate baby boomers, including those from Maine, who attended the observances. Many saw their lives transformed by Chavez’s 1960s and ’70s leadership on behalf of America’s poorest workers. Many of them see in Chavez a unique 20th-century civil and labor rights leader. They were among the millions of New Englanders who embraced his successful international boycotts against the Delano grape growers and others.
Chavez’s legacy is pertinent today. Maine business and civic leaders see the national growth of Latino immigration as needed human capital that compensates for the state’s population decline and is required for economic growth. There are already signs of demographic change: The migrations of baby boomers like myself and the mostly African refugees concentrated in cities such as Portland and Lewiston. Our Latino presence is part of a diverse mix of Third World migrations penetrating rural towns and urban areas. The overall growth is small, but their high birthrates are reflected by their representation in public schools approaching 40 percent in urban centers such as Portland. This is Maine’s future.
National polls support making citizens out of those locked in the closet of federal illegality. The likelihood of comprehensive immigration reform makes Chavez relevant now and into the future. One need only acknowledge the impact of Latino voters in the last presidential election. Who better than Chavez to symbolize Latinos’ transformation of national demographics that are redefining what our institutions stand for, what kind of people we are and what it means to be an American? Outside Maine, Latinos represent a cultural tsunami that is changing America over issues Chavez addressed decades ago, such as gay rights, unequal concentration of wealth, pollution and junk food.
Chavez’s words and deeds transcended union organizing to a converging morality and politics on fundamental issues like education and health care. A changing Maine economy requires increased investments both in college education skills for rural white Mainers migrating to the greater Portland area and in our demographically changing public schools. The Maine controversy over state payments for hospital health-care debts misses the larger moral issue of accepting expanded health insurance to mitigate growing costs.
The national significance of Chavez continues to grow. A major motion picture about Chavez produced in part by the same company that helped produce Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is due out later this year. A full-length documentary on Chavez will also air soon.
This growing attention on Chavez fits with his self-described mission as an organizer dedicated to helping ordinary people do extraordinary things and convincing poor people they can win against enormous odds through faith in themselves.
A core Chavez value that Mainers share will help people welcome the changing composition of Maine’s future. It is his overarching desire for us to master our lives in order to serve others. We should reflect on Chavez’s values on March 31, his birthday, now celebrated as a holiday in eight states and countless communities. Look for those values to be represented by enactment of comprehensive immigration reform that our nation wants and needs.