Celebrations of the life of Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, have spread acrsoss the country since his death ten years ago. They include protests, marches, teach-ins and festivals as well as official city, county and state holidays aimed at keeping his legacy alive.

On the weekend of his birthday, March 31, Chavez was remembered in many events across Northern California. An over-riding theme during this year’s celebrations, with the U.S. war on Iraq raging, was non-violent social change and peace.

Several thousand community organizers, activists and San Jose residents turned out March 29 at the 10th annual Cesar E. Chavez Commemorative March and Festival. For many who participated in the march, the late labor leader’s message of social and economic justice and non-violent activism held added significance with the war in Iraq. Sprinkled among the AFL-CIO signs were placards reading “No blood for oil” and “Bring our troops home.”

“This is all about peace and non-violence,” said Justin Garcia, a kindergarten teacher at the Mildred Goss School in East San Jose who was marching with his 20-year-old daughter and carrying a sign asking, “What would Jesus bomb?”

“We need to be able to solve things at the diplomats’ table, not with warfare,” Garcia said.

Peace and anti-war themes dominated this year’s Cesar E. Chavez Holiday Parade and Festival in San Francisco. The festival’s organizers said as many as 5,000 people participated, as labor leaders, union workers, anti-war activists and students marched. Speaker after speaker spoke in opposition to the war.

Thomas Sanchez never attended a parade and festival in Chavez’s honor until March 30 in San Francisco. Chavez’s message of labor rights for farm workers has been important to him, Sanchez said, but his other message – achieving change through nonviolent activism – is now more pressing. “At this moment, that’s more important,” said Sanchez, an unemployed mechanical engineer. “The need to be here is much stronger.”

Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the UFW along with Chavez, urged the crowd to register to vote. She said the wrong person got into office, causing this war. “It’s about oil and resources of other countries our greedy corporations want to make their own,” she said.

State Senator Pro Tem John Burton told the crowd, “If [Cesar] were here – he would call for a stop to the war.”

Urging people to take to the streets against the war, Rev. Louis Vitale of St. Boniface Church, who has been arrested for sit-ins at Fort Benning, Ga., said, “We’ve got to learn Cesar Chavez’s message of nonviolence, and get millions and millions of people out in the streets and stop this war.”

Federico Chavez, an administrative law judge and a nephew of the labor leader, called the invasion of Iraq “insane, unjustified, illegal.”

Focusing on the policies of the Bush administration, Evelina Alarcon, national coordinator of the Cesar E. Chavez national holiday campaign, told the rally, “Iraq is only the beginning. We have to stop this idea of preemption right now. Cesar si, Guerra no.”

Tom Csekey, vice-president of Service Employees International Union Local 1877 – who led the successful Justice for Janitors campaign, said, “Chavez would have said no to this war and put his body on the line. The cost of this war is $75 billion, while millions go without health care.”

Farmworkers rights and issues also were front and center during the Chavez celebrations. In Salinas, more than 600 members and supporters of the UFW marched, stretching more than a city block, chanting “¡Si se puede!”

After the four-mile march, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez called for better wages and working conditions for farm workers.

“Gas now costs $2.10 per gallon, the cost of rent is rising and the cost of food is rising,” he said.

“But the wages aren’t rising. It’s time to change that.”

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