As a child I asked my father whether there was someone like Martin Luther King Jr. who had fought for Latino rights. “Yes,” he said, and told me that his name was César Chávez. My father, a former farmworker who had toiled in the agricultural fields from childhood until adulthood, taught me about César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and the farmworker struggle.
I grew up in a small rural community in Ohio. It was home to many former agricultural workers who had previously traveled the migrant stream to pick crops in Ohio, just like my family. Despite the connection to agricultural and the farmworker communities, I did not learn about César Chávez or the farmworker struggle in my U.S. history classes.
I am hopeful that will change for students.
Mónica Ramirez (right) stands in front of the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene, Calif. She is with Mily Trevino Sauceda, president of the National Farmworker Women's Alliance.
This week, the United States government recognized the importance of the farmworker movement to United States history when it named La Paz, the United Farmworker’s headquarters, a national historic site. I was honored to join President Obama, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Dolores Huerta, members of the Chavez and Huerta families and thousands of other farmworker activists, students and community members at the dedication of the César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene, Calif. The monument on a 187-acre site is where Chavez had lived and where he is now buried.
César Chávez was one man who had a vision of a more just world. He dreamt of a world in which the farmworkers who put food on our tables would not go hungry because they were not paid enough for their work. Chavez went to work to make a world where all people, including farmworkers would be treated with dignity and respect. He knew the power of farmworkers had. He understood that they were the experts who would best inform political leaders, advocates and the public about the needs and priorities of their community. He helped farmworkers find their voice and gain visibility.
During the dedication, President Obama discussed the accomplishments that Chavez, Huerta and the members of the farmworker movement achieved. They led marches and boycotts that drew national attention from millions of people and led to the first contract with farm workers. The president reflected that despite the fact that farmworkers were historically considered to be powerless, poor and defenseless, the United Farm Workers of America, under Chavez and Huerta’s leadership, created significant change for the betterment of themselves, their communities, our nation and the world.
As I faced the monument and listened to the president’s remarks, I was proud that my parents taught me that no change happens from sidelines. The message that stayed with me was to get involved and support people. This was a lesson that they learned from the farmworkers’ movement. I was also deeply satisfied knowing that hundreds of thousands of children from around the world will have the opportunity to learn about the rich history of the farmworker movement now that La Paz has been named a U.S. historic site. It is my hope that all of those who visit the monument will recognize that, as Margaret Mead said, “a group of thoughtful, committed [people] really can change the world.” The United Farmworkers did just that and now they will be honored in U.S. history forever.
Ramirez is the acting deputy director at Centro del los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (Center for Migrant Rights) based in Baltimore, Md.