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Posted on Apr 17, 2012 |

Cesar Chavez Vigil Here Last Month

Cesar Chavez Vigil Here Last Month


March 31 Cesar Chavez Vigil at the Newport Peace Bell.


On March 31, Cesar Chavez Day in California and several other states, 50 people gathered at the World Peace Bell in Newport (KY) in a Cesar Chavez Vigil they hope will be an annual event.

Sponsored by the Northern Kentucky University Latino Student Affairs Organization and the Greater Cincinnati chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Vigil began with a prayer by Comboni Fr. Louis Gasparini. The group then walked across the Newport Bridge to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for addresses by three speakers: Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Judge Nadine Allen, Su Casa/Catholic Charities of SW Ohio Outreach Worker Margaret Singer, and activist Tony Simms.

Leo Calderon, director of the NKU group, says the vigil is a revival of one NKU spearheaded in 2008. Part of a national push to make Cesar Chavez Day a national holiday, that vigil featured Dolores Huerta, Chavez’s long-time assistant, and the inauguration of the group’s Dolores Huerta Social Activist Award. Though this year’s vigil was much smaller, Calderon says it was a good start for a yearly event the group plans to use to teach people in the regions about Chavez’s once-famous work for farmers and immigrants.

“The purpose is to bring in people from different races and ethnic backgrounds to celebrate an American hero,” Calderon says, “and to raise awareness of the other groups, not just Latinos, suffering in our country because of healthcare, jobs, and the economy.”

During the Civil Rights era, Cesar Chavez was as famous as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Born in Arizona to immigrant parents who lost everything during the Great Depression, Chavez became a migrant farm worker. Inspired by Catholic social teaching, especially the encyclicals of Popes Leo XII and Pius IX, he fought to unionize farm workers and transform the relationship between laborers and owners through non-violent strikes, protests, and fasts, with Our Lady of Guadalupe as patroness. After Chavez’s death from natural causes in 1993, President Clinton awarded him a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But Chavez, once celebrated as a champion of the dignity of the worker, is now largely forgotten beside icons of the era such as King and the Kennedy brothers. Calderon blames that on both a change in the political climate and the failure of Latino leaders to ensure that schools teach about what he accomplished. “We’re cheating our children’s education,” he says. “We’re not providing the kind of leadership that is needed.”

Speeches at the March 31 event, Comboni Missionaries spokesperson Mary Bertolini says, focused on urging Latinos and other minorities to participate in public life.

Judge Allen spoke about ensuring that Hispanic people receive justice in American courtrooms, calling it a “mission,” and Simms urged participants to learn about current issues and ensure that their children learned English. ““Find out what’s happening in your community. Get on a committee. It will make a difference in your life,” he said.

In his opening prayer, Fr. Gasparini compared Chavez to “other great prophets like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa,” who lived the example that “non-violence is truly a powerful instrument to achieve equality and liberation.”  For a recent, Catholic look at the life and legacy of Cesar Chavez, click here.

Vigil photo courtesy the Comboni Missionaries.

Cesar Chavez photo copyright Oscar R. Castillo, Coachella, 1972.