School buses lined the road at Arenal and Lopez in the gray light of early morning. More than 260 children and teens were ready to celebrate the life of César Chávez—with sweat and dirt.
They labored at Sanchez Farms, 14 acres of open space operated by La Plazita Institute in the South Valley. The younger kids played tag in the dirt while the older ones pushed wheelbarrows of shovels, rakes, gloves and seeds.
A regular field hand at the garden explained how compost works to a group of second graders. Some grabbed handfuls of worm-filled dirt, while the timid were instructed to shovel any remaining debris into the compost pit.
“They got a firsthand experience of the hard, backbreaking work of the farm worker,” said Liz Chávez Villarino, daughter of the famed labor activist César Chávez. “We believe it is important to celebrate my father's life not with day off of school or a day off of work, but a day of service.”
Kids from Coronado, Reginald Chavez and Barcelona elementary schools, as well as Amy Biehl and West Mesa high schools, planted trees, prepared compost and turned the ground on Friday, March 26. It was the first time a day of service preceded the annual César Chávez Day in the South Valley.
Liz and her husband David Villarino flew in from California to participate in the weekend's festivities, sponsored by Recuerda a César Chávez and the National Hispanic Cultural Center. The two-day celebration also included a march, music and an awards ceremony. More than 70 organizations participated. The event culminated in the unveiling of a statue of the activist that stands at the corner of Broadway and Avenida César Chávez.
The couple continues Chávez’ work through the Farmworker Institute for Education & Leadership Development (FIELD), which he founded in 1978 to address the problems of migrant workers in California. Its mission is to provide opportunities by teaching basic literacy skills, conducting ESL classes and fostering support groups. “We have trained in the last 10 years over 25,000 in the southern San Joaquin Valley,” said Liz Chávez Villarino, who's also FIELD's director of finance. “We get recent immigrants who don't know about my dad, but they want skills to make more money, and we provide them that access.”
The organization is only active in California but would like to expand to other Southwest states, including New Mexico, she said.
David Villarino has been the executive director of FIELD since 2000. He wants to extend the reach of the organization but says a lack of money for nonprofit groups is a hurdle, even though FIELD received federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
To cut costs and lead a transition into a for-profit business model, FIELD is preparing to install solar panels outside its offices. The group will sell excess energy to nearby homes, Villarino said, and make renewable energy education a part of its curriculum so workers can develop skills in emerging industries.
Villarino joined the farm workers movement after high school. He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, who fought in Pancho Villa’s army and for social justice in the lush fruit fields outside San Diego. “There, the growers controlled the school district, and they started segregating the schools,” Villarino said. “When my grandfather found out they were trying to put Mexican kids in the barn, he organized a lawsuit against the school district.”
In 1931, Roberto Alvarez vs. The Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District became the first court case in the nation to address racial segregation, preceding Brown vs. Board of Education by more than 20 years.
“After high school I heard stories about a guy in Delano [Calif.], César Chávez, who was organizing workers just like my grandfather had done," Villarino said. "I joined up as soon as I could."
As a member of the movement, he was trained by the FBI to protect Chávez, he said, because the mafia was prepared to assassinate the activist leader for cutting into farm profits.
“César had deep faith. He believed in nonviolence, he believed in the sanctity of life and he believed in the primacy of labor. Those are what drove him," Villarino said. “One time, I remember he told me, 'Look, there is really no way you are going to be able to protect me. If someone is going to kill me, they are going to kill me.' ”
Villarino said he first felt affection for Liz Chávez while standing guard outside her father's home. The couple had to hide their relationship, he said, because another union member had been demoted for dating a Chávez daughter.
“It turns out he knew all along,” Liz Chávez Villarino said. “I would have taken a bullet for my father, too. That's part of why I was attracted to David.”
Although César Chávez is honored nationally, this was the first time the couple participated in the South Valley celebration. They have connections in the state that draw them back. Liz’ nephews, the grandsons of César Chávez, are UNM students who play on the golf team. David also has family in Albuquerque. Because they spend time here, they're familiar with the strength of the local organizers.
“There is a really good base of activism,” Villarino said. “It's a fertile ground to be able to start solving the economic problems and to start getting our hands around the educational deficiencies of the Latino community.”
On Saturday, March 27, more than 150 people from all generations participated in the annual march along Isleta Boulevard that began at the Westside Community Center and ended at the NHCC. Marchers were greeted with the song “La Negra,” played by Mariachi San Jose.
As he walked onto the NHCC plaza at the end of the parade, marcher Joel Cruz told his grandson of the activist mindset Chávez planted for the working class. Cruz recalled his own story of the labor leader: In 1991, a United Farm Workers organizer recruited then law student Cruz to help struggling green chile farm workers in Las Cruces. He said landowners were not providing sufficient water, and women were getting stomach virus due to a lack of bathroom breaks. Chávez went to Las Cruces and rallied laborers, residents and some concerned landowners. Cruz was as a field organizer and aided the legal team that brought forth a lawsuit, which they won.
He remembers the humble smile Chávez had after the victory and his readiness for the next battle. “He inspired me to stay active in New Mexico,” Cruz said. “He showed me the importance of taking advantage of the opportunities that were provided to me so that I may achieve success.”