Remembering Cesar Chavez and Raising the Next Generation of Organizers

On Sunday, March 29, Maria Serrano, a veteran organizer for the United Farm Workers, sits next to a table displaying UFW memorabilia from 1979. Serrano and other former UFW organizers gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Park in Coachella for "El Precio de la Justicia," a an event to celebrate the life and legacy of Cesar Chavez.  Photo: CHRISTIAN MENDEZ / Coachella Unincorporated
On Sunday, March 29, Maria Serrano, a veteran organizer for the United Farm Workers, sits next to a table displaying UFW memorabilia from 1979. Serrano and other former UFW organizers gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Park in Coachella for “El Precio de la Justicia,” an event to celebrate the life and legacy of Cesar Chavez. Photo: CHRISTIAN MENDEZ / Coachella Unincorporated

AMBER AMAYA and CHRISTIAN MENDEZ / Coachella Unincorporated

COACHELLA — Pins from a United Farm Workers of America Convention were scattered across a long table covered in a bright red banner. The bold image of a black eagle was stitched to the front of the banner, and a small signature next to the eagle read, “Cesar Chavez, ’77.”

“Viva Cesar Chavez!” a woman yelled.

A crowd was gathered at Coachella’s Vietnam Veterans Park on Sunday, March 29 for the “El Precio de la Justicia,” celebration and procession in honor of Cesar Chavez’s life and legacy.

Maria Serrano, a UFW veteran, stood at the front of the crowd, dressed in a white shirt with a portrait of Cesar Chavez printed on the front. Serrano, a UFW member since 1977, helped Chavez organize strikes in Mecca. And it was during those strikes, she said, she witnessed Chavez’s firm commitment to nonviolence.

“We were in Mecca trying to organize and the teamsters were there,” Serrano described in Spanish as she rested against her walker. “There was almost a fight between everyone, but Cesar was very strict about telling us to disperse. ‘Please,’ he told all the workers, ‘I do not want violence. No violence.’”

Serrano said Chavez’s commitment to nonviolence during confrontations with law enforcement and farm owners stuck with her long after the incidents were over.

Across the table from Serrano, Maria Aguirre, another life-long Coachella resident, described her visits to UFW meetings when she was a farmworker. Aguirre said it is important for everyone, especially young people, to remember the sacrifices Chavez and other UFW organizers made.

“It is important to have events like this that remember the movement,” Aguirre said in Spanish. “It’s gratitude towards what was done.”

The work of Cesar Chavez and local UFW organizers didn’t go unremembered, thanks, in part, to a group of young people who helped organize events over the weekend in Indio and Coachella.

On Friday, March 27 the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) chapter from College of the Desert (COD) hosted the Cesar Chavez Celebration: A Night of Cultural Resistance at the COD campus in Indio. Alfredo Figueroa, a former UFW organizer, acted as the keynote speaker. Figueroa described how he had helped Cesar Chavez organize in Coachella, and even spent time in jail because of his activism.

Yolanda Moreno, a MEChA student organizer and Mecca resident, said even though a majority of Chavez’s organizing happened before she was born, Chavez’s legacy still influences the next generation of organizers in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“[Cesar Chavez] was a crucial leader figure here in our community, and it’s important to recognize that and to follow his footsteps,” Moreno said. “Not a lot of brown figures make a national impact the way that he did, so it’s just a continuation of remembering and empowering each other, and the fact that we can actually change stuff.”

Students from the MEChA chapter at Coachella Valley High School also attended the “El Precio de la Justicia” event on Sunday; they passed out water bottles to the crowd gathered at the park.

Jackie Aguilar, a senior at Coachella Valley High School and MEChA member, said both her parents and her grandparents had worked in the fields. She decided to attend the event on Sunday to learn more about Chavez and the UFW organizers who fought for the rights of farmworkers.

“I think it’s important to learn all these things because it’s part of our culture, and it’s part of our history,” Aguilar said. “I would be very detached from my culture if I didn’t know all this history. I just think it’s great to keep in touch with what our ancestors did.”

Young people, like Aguilar, are the future of organizing, according to Serrano. As she rested in her walker, Serrano continued to reflect on her own history of organizing with Chavez in the eastern Coachella Valley, and she instructed young people to take up the fight for social justice and rights for farmworkers.

“We are here so that our fight does not die. We want it to continue with the youth. Youth need to know of this struggle. Over time, many achievements were made for the community,” she said in Spanish. “This makes us proud because through our struggle and sacrifice and Cesar and his fasting and marching, this is the reason we are here.”

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