Spectators became participants as they jumped onto the dance floor to do the merengue with dancers in the Middle Ballroom in the Lory Student Center, where the colors of the Mexican flag hovered above chairs in celebration of Cesar Chavez, Mexican American civil rights activist.
The Quetzalcoatl Dance troupe of Fort Collins provided entertainment last night for this kick-off event, a cooperative effort between CSU and the city of Fort Collins, which has proclaimed the week starting March 26 Cesar Chavez week.
This is not your typical high school slow dance, but “it’s just a Saturday night for them in Mexico,” a spectator observed as she watched the dancing pairs perform a Mexican slow dance with hip action.
Keynote speaker Professor Luis Leon, a Ph.D. of the University of Denver, compared the civil rights activist and the founder of United Farm Worker to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, citing his contribution to migrant workers and the non-violence.
“On his deathbed Chavez said, ‘Nothing has changed,’ but he was undercutting himself,” Leon said, pointing out that farm workers no longer live in “shantytowns” or get raped and beaten as was the case while Chavez was alive.
“Attention to the issues is greater, and some basic human rights are now in existence,” Leon said.
But workers are still being exploited, and establishment of guest worker programs in response to tighter border controls only reinforces stereotypes of farm workers as less than human.
The solution, Leon said, “is to legalize farm workers so that they have the rights and responsibilities that American workers do, including paying taxes.”
Chavez argued for tighter border restrictions, Leon said, because undocumented workers drive down wages and aren’t covered by the same protections. Chavez’s union was about standardizing wages and protections for migrant workers.
But Chavez wasn’t only for worker’s rights. He campaigned gay rights, worked for the poor, and championed the rights of women, naming Dolores Huerta, a teacher from New Mexico, as the first leader of the United Farm Workers in 1962.
“I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of (humanity) is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice,” Chavez said.
He worked with Martin Luther King, fasted publicly like Gandhi and was supported by Robert Kennedy and Coretta Scott King. After Martin Luther King’s death, he was considered the greatest civil rights leader in America before his death in 1993.
CSU students Heather Gardner and Jennifer Macias emceed the celebration of Chavez’s life, which included dinner by Consuelo’s Mexican Restaurant and a ceremony honoring local high school students, Latino organizations, guidance counselors and teachers for their contributions and community service.
“Many times we hear all these negative things that the media chooses to print, and there are some negative things, but there are a lot of positive things too,” said Rich Salas, assistant director of El Centro and co-chair of the event.
He created this award with local Poudre School District personnel to recognize students who are serving others as Chavez did.
Gardner encouraged high school students to seek out and become involved in helpful organizations when they come to college.
“It is a scary challenge when you get here and you see not very many brown faces, but we are here and we are leaders on this campus,” she said.
Staff writer Shari Blackman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.