The Story Behind Cesar Chavez Day Celebrations

Why there's no national observance

Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez ca. 1950s. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born on March 31 in 1927, Cesar Chavez was raised in Arizona and California. His childhood years weren’t marked by carefree days frolicking with friends but by laboring in the fields.

“Families like Chavez's were impoverished; exposed to hazardous working conditions and dangerous pesticides; and often denied clean drinking water, toilets, and other basic necessities,” President Barack Obama has noted.

That experience would influence an adult Chavez to become a community organizer who fought for fair wages, medical benefits and the right for farm workers to unionize. Chavez’s use of passive resistance led to him co-founding the United Farm Workers of America in the 1960s, considered the first viable union for agricultural laborers. To honor his contributions to farm workers, the Chicano movement and more, a mobilization occurred after his 1993 death to establish Cesar Chavez Day.

Chavez Day History

California has the distinction of being the first state to establish a holiday in honor of Chavez. In August 2000, then Gov. Gray Davis signed the holiday into law after State Sen. Richard Polanco introduced the legislation. The state’s adoption of Cesar Chavez Day marked the first time that either a Latino or a labor leader was honored with a public holiday.

California observes the day on Chavez’s birthday—March 31.

States such as New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Michigan, Utah and Wisconsin also formally recognize Chavez Day, closing public entities during the observance.

Chavez Day Celebrations

Chavez Day commemorations typically focus on continuing the activist’s legacy. Because Chavez was an advocate for workers, public discussions about his life on Chavez Day focus on how he supported laborers and what steps should be taken today to advocate for them.

Moreover, the public reflects on the methods of passive resistance Chavez used to achieve his goals—marches, hunger strikes, peaceful protests. The overlap between his tactics and those used by Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi are often highlighted.

In addition, schoolchildren learn about Chavez’s life and the farm labor movement in class, and civic groups host gatherings in recognition of Chavez. The public also engages in community service activities related to Chavez’s interests. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has helped with this effort, declaring the last week of March “César E. Chávez Community Service Week” since 2002. The week focuses on service to working families and others.

Pushing For a National Holiday

Cesar Chavez is most often remembered for his contributions to farm workers, but his activism has had far-reaching effects. His work has left an imprint on a variety of unions in addition to individuals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Because of his legacy, a number of public figures—Carlos Santana, Martin Sheen, Edward James Olmos, California Congressman Joe Baca and President Obama—have supported the creation of a national Cesar Chavez holiday. The diversity of the people who support federal recognition for Chavez hasn’t gone unnoticed by Evelina Alarcon, executive director of the Cesar E.

Chavez National Holiday organization.

“The drive for a Cesar Chavez national holiday has won tremendous enthusiasm generating participation from a wide range of organizations, elected officials, and celebrities representing all races and nationalities in every region of the nation including cities and states that have never celebrated Cesar’s birthday before,” Alarcon said in a statement.

Despite the strong support for national recognition of Chavez, House Republicans blocked the creation of a federal holiday in 2008. Rep. Baca expressed his dismay over this in a opinion piece. He called Republican opposition to a Chavez observance “outrageous.”

“They quietly blocked the resolution using parliamentary procedure, and gave no reason for doing so,” he wrote. “Their votes implied that a man who Robert F.

Kennedy called ‘one of the most heroic figures of our time’ is not worth honoring, even with a symbolic gesture.”

Efforts were once again underway to establish a federal observance of Cesar Chavez’s life in 2011, with a bill introduced by Baca proposing that the last Friday of March be recognized as National Cesar Chavez Day.