City of Milwaukee employees and members of the public attended the second annual César E. Chávez Day celebration at City Hall on March 31.

The public event was held at the first floor rotunda of “the people’s house.” Along with resource tables for the community, the gathering proudly marked the birthday of the renowned civil rights activist. Alderman José G. Pérez hosted the press conference, which also featured speeches by local Latino leaders.

“Milwaukee’s César E. Chávez Day is a great example of our progress to celebrate people of all cultures,” said Alderman Pérez. “Our community is excited to connect and expand our potential. With the ongoing success of our efforts, I foresee great things for Milwaukee.”

In 2014, Alderman Pérez co-sponsored the successful Common Council legislation designating March 31 as the annual “César E. Chávez Day” in observance of the labor leader’s birthday. It established that day as an optional holiday in lieu of any other paid holiday for city employees.

“César Chávez Day is very special to me, because I was able to work on the renaming of Cesar Chavez Drive,” said Milwaukee County Supervisor Peggy A. West. “It is one of the biggest achievements of my life, to honor a street with his name in the heart of the Milwaukee Latino community.”

On October 25, 1996, Milwaukee formally changed the name for a stretch of South 16th Street into South Cesar Chavez Drive. The name change was a two year process, that Supervisor West said represented the Hispanic struggles in Milwaukee, but also their perseverance to accomplish. It was a symbolic victory, the first time any Hispanic had been honored in such a way by a Wisconsin government.

State Representative JoCasta Zamarripa, who introduced herself as a granddaughter of migrant a farm laborer who picked vegetables and worked at a cannery in Milwaukee, announced a new legislative initiative. Sponsored with Wisconsin Senator Chris Larson, the bill would make César Chávez Day a state holiday like the observance of it in Milwaukee City and County, where workers can take it in place of another paid holiday.

“Senator Larson and I introduced a bill to create a state holiday to honor César Chávez. We think it is important to lift up the memory of this man, because he was a great leader. But also because Latinos in Wisconsin are the fastest-growing constituency in the state,” said Representative Zamarripa. “So we need to lift up this community. We are the future of Wisconsin. We are the future workforce, and today’s workforce. We need to continue to celebrate Latino accomplishments in Wisconsin, and this is a way we can do it.”

The growing Hispanic population of Milwaukee, which was only around 40,000 in 1990, has reached more than 103,000 today, according to the 2010 US Census. The importance of the holiday also stretched across Milwaukee cultures, as Senator Larson reminded people of the parallel between the work of César Chávez to improve labor conditions and the city’s long history with labor rights.

“My community, where I live is Bay View, is where the Bay View mаssаcrе happened on May 1, 1886. We commemorate it the first Sunday of every May. Our neighbors stepped forward for an eight hour workday, something that a lot of us take for granted now after 130 years,” said Senator Larson. “They stood up at the Rolling Mill. The state militia was given the order by Republican Governor Jeremiah M. Rusk to shoot to kiII, and that is what they did. We lost some of our neighbors back then, as part of the nationwide workers rights movement.”

Senator Larson cautioned the public not to forget so many of the efforts made by previous generations. For example, Wisconsin led the fight for Worker’s Compensation, in case of injuries sustained during employment. His message connected with points made by other speakers, to not forget the struggles César Chávez endured.

“Today, in this difficult hour of our country, I ask that you never tell the Chávez story backwards. Our minds are kind to us, and help us erase the pain, and the struggle, and difficult things, and leave us with memories golden as a statue. This can lead to a dangerous falsehood. It can let us forget that nothing worth having is accomplished without effort, without struggle,” said Alderman Pérez. “Our times are different, those who don’t understand our cause are different, and our fears are different. What endures and binds us, however, is an unshakable commitment to the cause of justice.”

Following the City Hall ceremony, Ian Bautista, Executive Director of the Clarke Square Neighborhood Initiative (CSNI), invited attendees to a reception at El Rey supermarket, where a life sized statue of César E. Chávez was installed and dedicated on the first annual celebration of his birthday last year.

César Estrada Chávez, who passed in 1993, was an American labor leader and civil rights activist. With Dolores Huerta, he co-founded what would become the United Farm Workers union (UFW) in 1962. Originally a Mexican American farm worker, Chavez became the best known Latino American civil rights activist, and was strongly promoted by the American labor movement, which was eager to enroll Hispanic members.

© Photo

Lee Matz

Read the article, listen the audio, and view the photo essay that were produced as companion features for this news report.