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Mayor’s Corner: “The Humanity of Cesar Chavez is a Guide for Maine’s Future”

By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.

Mayor of Lewiston

Several months ago Joey Lopez, originally from Texas and now director of the Maine Chapter League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and his friend Albeni Dasilva, formerly of Brazil, came to see me in support of Latin American issues.

Lopez and Dasilva invited elected officials and police officers for a Latin American meal at LULAC State Directors location at 40 Strawberry Ave. in Lewiston. It was a wonderful celebration, and it provided an opportunity for L-A officials to get to know L-A LULAC members. Joey Lopez and I became good friends. I introduced him to hockey, and now he is as staunch a MAINEiacs fan, as I am. I recently became a member of LULAC. Together we worked on the DREAM Act, a subject I addressed in an earlier column.

Dr. Ralph Carmona, president of the Portland LULAC, moved to Portland this past year with his wife Vana, who is originally from Maine, and we have become good friends since working on a number of human rights issues. Lopez and Carmona were the principals in the development of the Cesar Chavez celebration on March 31 at the historic First Parish Church of Portland.

With Carmona’s permission, I share with you below what he wrote in the program at Cesar Chavez Celebration:

“At 9 a.m. at First Parish of Portland, March 31, people will gather to celebrate the birthday of Cesar Estrada Chavez. Bobby Kennedy characterized him as “one of the heroic figures of our time.”

“It will be an observance beyond Cesar’s organization of this nation’s poorest rural workers into the United Farm Workers of America. It will be Cesar in his complexity and universality: Cesar the educated man, voices of his prayer, faith, music, environmental sensitivity and human rights, a Cesar who goes to the moral core of collective organizing as a civil right for working people.

“My voice will be of Cesar the All-American.

“The Maine League of United Latin American Citizens comes with a political climate symbolized by February testimony we gave against a “birther” bill before a state legislative committee. The legislation required candidates for elective office to prove citizenship. We opined that the proposal deserved no legislative hearing because it is rooted in an extremist belief that our President is a non-citizen and energizes a racist past. The mere introduction of such xenophobic legislation betrays Maine’s demographic reality.

“For the whitest and oldest state in the union, in contrast to states like Arizona, immigration is a non-issue. But understanding Cesar’s humanity is critical for Maine’s future. Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, his inner faith energized national sentiment. Through thought and deed, Cesar organized against deplorable conditions affecting poor rural workers.

“A child of racial segregation in a Los Angeles that was almost 90 percent white Protestant during the 1950s, my sense of segregation’s injustice came from Robert Conot’s “Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness.” The book is about the city’s 1965 Watts Riots and prophesized a coming Chicano Movement revolt in Los Angeles.

“Cesar’s farm worker movement first came to mind in 1968, when Bobby Kennedy embraced him as a presidential candidate. Along with King, Kennedy was assassinated in that tumultuous year of countercultural and civil rights turmoil. Student protests got me into college, after graduation in 1969 from a “Mexican” high school engulfed by citywide Chicano student walkouts. It made me a desegregation college activist and campaigner for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. I was moved by Cesar’s endorsement of McGovern and joined co-founder, Dolores Huerta, at a UFW rally for him. I was a guest during the 1970s at Cesar’s headquarters in La Paz, California.

“It was a time, Marc Grossman, Cesar’s spokesman reminds me, when Chavez was told to “go back to Mexico.” Last year, his granddaughter, was asked about her immigrant status and a commentator suggested Cesar’s body be shipped back to Mexico. “What is astounding,” Grossman told me, “is that the Chavez family has been in this country longer than many Americans.” Fleeing from servitude in Mexico, Cesar’s grandfather, Cesario, settled in Arizona and received property through the 1862 Homestead Act. One of Cesar’s uncles witnessed the legendary 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. In the late 1800s, he ran a business cutting wood, hauling it in wagons pulled by mule teams that built mines. And, of course, his business contributed to the Internet of a pre-state Arizona economy: The building of its railroads. At the turn of the Century, Cesar’s dad, Librado, drove a Wells Fargo stagecoach, was a farmer, local postmaster and ran a country store that was a community center for Anglos and Latinos. The Chavez family helped build the Old West.

“Born on March 31, 1931, in Arizona, Cesar served in the military. Like the Depression-era Oakies in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” his family lost their property to the banks and migrated to California. From family tragedy came Cesar’s movement for social justice.

“There will be other diverse Chavez voices mindful of a forgotten past when “progressive” leaders equated immigrants with apes and denied women voting rights because they would grow male body hair. Today is a time when “others of differing gender orientation or immigrant status still feel compelled to hide in life’s public closets and shadows.”

“Hopefully, Cesar’s birthday celebration will mark the beginning of a diverse Maine future with opportunity and growth through acts of common humanity.”

I thank Dr. Carmona for allowing me to share his words with you!

I am extremely disappointed with my fellow French-Canadian descendent, Governor Paul LePage, a former fellow mayor of Waterville, for removing the historical mural of the history of the labor strife of immigrants to America.

“They can take a painting down, they can take the names of history down from the conference rooms, but they cannot take our voices and that’s why we’re here today,” said Joey Lopez. He is correct: history is what it is; you cannot hide it in a closet or paint over it because those who lived it will always remember and pass it on, as the Cesar Chavez remembrance has done.

In actuality, Governor LePage brought attention to the mural panels most of us Mainers never knew existed. The murals depicted the labor struggles here in Maine such at the infamous 1937 shoe strike right here in L-A, the paper mill strikes, Frances Perkins, the first woman Labor Secretary under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was instrumental in bringing about Social Security and other worker benefits, as she had Maine ties and has the Department of Labor’s building in Washington, D.C. named in her honor.

Thankfully, Governor LePage brought attention to the mural panels, albeit in a very negative sense. The result is that he has made himself as the governor of our great state the laughing stock of our country with the national attention he has brought by his negativism and sarcasm. Strangely enough, his motto is “People before Politics.”

In my opinion, he has yet to live by his words. The words “Business Politics before People” might be more appropriate. Business and workers need to work together, not one with advantage over the other, in a spirit of fundamental fairness. When Governor LePage says: “We are open for business,” his disrespectful and insulting comments become counter-productive to luring any business to establish itself here in such a negative climate.

If Governor LePage wanted to bring attention to business and economic development, perhaps he should commission a mural to be painted at the offices of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Then he could strike the balance between business and labor that he claims to seek.

As a Franco-American and as a mayor, quite frankly, I am truly embarrassed. I wonder if Governor LePage has forgotten his roots. I hope that he will heed the advice of his Republican Senators and Representatives and cool his rhetoric for the sake of our great state and make us proud again with our state motto: “Dirigo.”

He should either lead or get out of the way. He has a duty and responsibility to do so!

See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com.

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One Response to “Mayor’s Corner: “The Humanity of Cesar Chavez is a Guide for Maine’s Future””

  • Mary-Jo Avellar:

    Great column about a truly important subject. Gov. LePage and his revisionist politics are counterproductive and harmful. Sadly, this seems to be the Republican modus operandi, both at the local and the national level. Lewiston’s fortunate to a mayor whose first priority are his constituents, not the party line.

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