By Alan Bean
Arlington school students will still have a holiday in May, but it won’t bear the name of Cesar Chavez. Last night, a series of eloquent Latino activists (many of them in their teens) made the case for naming this anonymous holiday after the great labor organizer and civil rights activist. Gloria Peña, president of the board of trustees, presented a motion in favor of the change. I even made a little impromptu speech of my own. It made no difference.
For me, this issue is personal and therefore emotional. First, the local fight for a Chavez holiday is being led by Luis Castillo, am Arlington LULAC president, Friends of Justice board member, and friend.
Secondly, Chavez has had an indirect influence on the organizing strategy Friends of Justice employs. Marshall Ganz, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government, went to work for Cesar Chavez in the mid 1960s after cutting his teeth as an organizer in Mississippi. (Ganz talks about this experience here and in a new book, “Why David Sometimes Wins“.) From Chavez, Ganz learned the difference between marketing and organizing. Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008 because Marshall Ganz trained 25,000 organizers to lead a grassroots campaign; the president’s problems began when a Chavez-style organizing strategy degenerated into a marketing campaign featuring silly emails purportedly from Barack Obama. It was Ganz who stole the Chavez rallying cry “Yes we Can” (“Sí, se puede”) for the Obama campaign. Friends of Justice board member, Lydia Bean, has worked closely with Ganz in recent years and has channeled key pieces of his philosophy into our work.
Why does the Arlington board of trustees have a problem with naming a currently anonymous and nondescript holiday after a Latino organizing hero and civil rights icon? What’s the big beef here?
Trustee Wayne Ogle has mixed feelings about Chavez. As Marshall Ganz freely acknowledges, Chavez developed a paranoid streak in his later years and embraced some questionable ideas. Fair enough. All great leaders have their flaws–most of them resulting from of the extraordinary pressure change agents work under.
But Ogle voted for the measure. He realized that the vote wasn’t about his personal views; it was about honoring the Latino students who comprise 41% of the AISD student body.
The four trustees who turned thumbs down claim to have great admiration for Chavez as a person; they’re just afraid that naming a holiday in the Latino icon’s honor might spark an outcry from military veterans.
Huh? Sure, Arlington kids don’t currently get Veterans Day off; but the schools compete to see who can put on the most elaborate November 11th ceremony. If we want to honor our veterans we should ensure their domestic and medical needs are taken care of. We are great at honoring veterans in the abstract while we ignore the concrete needs of the real men and women in the military.
If this issue is about empowering students, the veterans issue is a red herring invented to mask a more sinister issue.
Cesar Chavez is unacceptable to a majority of AISD trustees for the same reason the great organizer is so important to the Latino community: Chavez defended the interests of Mexican-American laborers who were being exploited by the Anglo business community. Trustees couldn’t care less about the man’s late-career crankiness; they are offended by his positive achievements.
It was painful listening to trustee Bowie Hogg explain his opposition to president Peña’s motion. He had nothing personal against Chavez, he told the meeting, he just didn’t like to see partisan politics injected into the board’s deliberations. Hogg’s body language and facial contortions communicated a very different message. Here’s the message I picked up: “Madame president, I would like to take this opportunity to tell all the socialists, radical-labor-sympathizers and foreigners who favor your proposal to go to hell. Thank you very much.”
What we saw last night was just another example of the pro-white bigotry we have been hearing from the Texas State Board of Education in recent years. They too have a beef with Cesar Chavez, and for precisely the same reason. Texas conservatives aren’t happy that, within two decades at most, there will be more Latino voters in Texas than Anglo voters.
Arlington, Texas, the proud home of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers, has a school population that is 41% Latino while our city council and school board have but one token non-Anglo apiece. Our population may be diverse, but our monochrome politicians demonstrate that the power structure hasn’t changed since Arlington was an all-white community in the 1950s.
ARLINGTON — For the second time, the school board declined Thursday to create a school holiday to honor labor leader and civil-rights activist Cesar Chavez.
The vote was 4-2 to adopt the 2011-12 school calendar as presented by the administration, which does not include the Chavez holiday. It also ends the first semester before the winter break.
The holiday was proposed to replace an existing holiday, the generically named “May holiday.”
Board President Gloria Peña, an ardent supporter of the proposed holiday, thanked the audience and several speakers for their civility and urged them to press on with their campaign.
“Students, you have exercised your rights — continue to do so,” said Peña, the board’s first Hispanic president. “I want to apologize. I feel I have failed you. I want to represent all schoolchildren, but I am one of you as well.”
Peña and Wayne Ogle voted for the holiday. Jamie Sullins, Aaron Reich, Bowie Hogg and board Vice President Peter Baron voted against.
Among the concerns trustees cited was that a holiday for Chavez, who founded the United Farm Workers of America and fought to empower workers, could be perceived as a slight to military veterans because schools don’t close for Veterans Day.
Sullins said a better alternative would be to establish an observance on March 31, Chavez’s birthday, that would include special studies and activities similar to how schools now observe Veterans Day. She said she was impressed by a Veterans Day assembly she attended at Shackelford Junior High School.
“One thing that stood out for me is that it was such an opportunity for learning,” Sullins said. “They learned so much that day about veterans because they were [in school], and they were involved. I have to wonder that if they were at home, would they have had the same” learning experience.
Ogle said he supported the holiday, although he does not completely embrace Chavez.
“I think he is a conflicted historical figure,” Ogle said. “I’m not trying to honor Cesar Chavez. I’m trying to honor the 40 percent of our students who are Hispanic.”
Trustee John Hibbs, like Sullins elected to the board in May, was absent from the meeting. But he said in an interview this week that he would likely support an in-school observance rather than a holiday.
A proposal to create a holiday on March 31 lost in December, with Peña and Ogle as its only supporters then, too. Some trustees said they were concerned about granting a day off in the midst of intense preparation for state standards testing.
The proposal to rename the May holiday in honor of Chavez — eliminating the concern about losing a day of instruction — was suggested at the Nov. 4 board meeting by Richard Gonzales, a past president of the Arlington League of United Latin American Citizens.
At Thursday’s meeting, Gonzales told the board that Chavez’s tenacious pursuit of fair treatment of the disadvantaged is an inspirational message for all students.
“He said once social change begins, it can’t be reversed,” Gonzales said. “You cannot oppress people who are not afraid anymore.”