Chavez granddaughter calls for more action

By David Hertz

Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of famous farm workers labor leader Cesar Chavez, urged young activists to take lessons from the life of her grandfather in front of about 60 Macalester students in the ballroom of Kagin last Tuesday, March 3.Rodriguez graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, and has spent the last 8 years working with the Cesar Chavez Foundation. She has spoken at many schools about the legacy of Cesar Chavez, and helped organize trips for students to work on service projects with farm workers in rural areas.

“It’s kind of getting students to translate Chavez’s values into things that are relevant in their communities,” Rodriguez said. “To me, the call ‘si se puede’ is not just a phrase from the past- it is inspiring a whole new generation of activists.”

“The current generation is more activist than previous generations,” she said.

The term ‘si se puede’ was coined during the struggle of the United Farm Workers union, founded by Cesar Chavez to help the largely Hispanic farm labor force organize for better working conditions and pay, against labor laws that prevented them from organizing in Arizona during the 1970s.

More recently, the term has been picked up by Barack Obama. He adopted it mainly in its English form, yes we can, and occasionally in the original Spanish.

“He [Obama] has said that what is needed is a new era of responsibility,” she explained, “Not only are students at the forefront of national politics today, they’re also in the trenches.” She said they are doing this through grassroots organization.

Advising what she described as an activist generation, she called on students to follow Chavez’s lead and turn down economic stability to help fight for causes they believe in. Chavez’s greatest challenge in organizing was leaving his secure job at a nonprofit to begin working to take on the seemingly impossible job of organizing farm workers, Rodriguez elaborated.

Her grandfather realized that, “It was easier for us to try to escape poverty than to change the conditions which create poverty,” she said.

Emma Sheppard, ’09, the student coordinator who organized the event as part of Macalester’s SPEAK series, consisting of four talks on social issues this year.

Sheppard said she frequently is asked whether she thinks her peers are as politically active as previous generations.

“I really don’t know, and really I’m not sure that’s the point,” Sheppard said.

As student activism moved from the Cesar Chavez’s si se puede in the 1970s to Barack Obama’s yes we can, Sheppard said, students are being active in less radical ways, educating rather than agitating.