Some have been calling President Barack Obama's dedication of the Cesar Chavez National Monument last Monday a campaign stunt, but I had the opportunity to see a sitting president in person, so I took it.
The event, held at Chavez's longtime home in Keene, was well organized. Security was omnipresent, but the crowd was patient as people disembarked from the buses and filed through the security corridors into La Paz. The organizers had provided shade, snacks and water, and the live Latin music helped create a festive mood. The only exception was the guy with the misspelled protest sign, but I was glad that he was there, too, and nobody seemed to bother him. By day's end, most everyone felt very lucky and proud to be an American. I know I did. And I suspect that those there who aren't "American" sure wanted to be.
In his speech, Obama did not mention the current presidential campaign at all; he spoke about the Chavez legacy. He talked about how Chavez did much more than found and lead a labor organization, about how he provided a means of empowerment though education and self-help to a struggling people.
Teddy Roosevelt said, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are," and Chavez lived that. Chavez not only empowered Latinos, but all of us.
It occurred to me that I had benefited from this legacy, too. Even though I've worked in the oil fields and not as a grape picker, I suffered from heat illness on a very hot day a long time ago. Today, employers are required to provide adequate drinking water and shade to their workers. Many of the improvements to the workplace in the past two decades started with the farmworker struggle. Now just look at all of the pop-up tents and water cans around construction sites in the oil field; they are Chavez's legacy, too, and they used to not be there -- trust me.
I also thought about the legacy of our Latino community. My thoughts turned to the Wall of Valor on Truxtun Avenue at S Street. If you know someone who harbors any nasty prejudices that they can barely hide, the bench at the fountain was made for them. They can get an education by reading the names of the dead from the most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Half of them are Latino surnames. Those people, just like all of the other war dead honored there, served with pride and died to preserve our freedom to express the need for change; and for the liberty to make things better in America. Isn't that what Chavez and his followers did with that freedom and liberty?
Then, please, have that someone you know go right on reading the names through World War I, especially if their family hasn't served in the military because they were exempted by some sort of privilege. They owe all of the men and women belonging to those names some of their quiet time, too. Through careful observation, they might even notice that the names they owe a debt of gratitude to belong to every creed, culture and ethnicity that makes up America.
So, after that hardhearted someone reads the names on the Wall of Valor, maybe he'll give some respect to those of us from almost every creed, culture, and ethnicity in America who gathered to celebrate Cesar Chavez and his followers' accomplishments. His life and his movement improved the lives of working people all around our country, even those out in the oil field.
Jon Carrithers of Bakersfield worked for 20 years as a well operator and corporate-level crisis management adviser for Mobil Oil. Ten years ago, he started an environmental and safety management consulting business that he still operates regionally.