Traditional music, dancing, and food filled the Lory Student Center North Ballroom Friday as students, staff, faculty and Fort Collins community members remembered a civil rights hero.
Cesar Chavez was a civil rights leader who worked mostly with Chicano rights, but quickly became a human civil rights leader. He founded the National Farm Workers Association (now called the United Farm Workers) in 1965 to fight for migrant farm workers.
Preaching non-violent protests like his 1965 grape-pickers strike in California, Chavez used peaceful means to gain higher wages and better conditions for workers.
Displays set up around the ballroom illustrated conditions Cesar Chavez fought to improve. One picture showed a pesticide plane spraying the field near workers. Many migrant workers developed heath complications due to the use of pesticides.
“The importance is sharing the history of migrant farm workers to understand what’s going on today and to truly grasp what Cesar Chavez did for migrant workers,” said Elisa Hernandez, president of National Hispanic Institute on campus. “He improved conditions and made farms more civilized and humanized.”
In 2001, Fort Collins made March 31 Cesar Chavez day, said Mayor Doug Hutchinson.
“Great cities embrace diversity,” Hutchinson said. “Fort Collins is a great city. Today’s events show we strive to be an inclusive city.”
President Larry Penley also addressed the audience, but spoke only Spanish. He discussed inclusion and recognition of, not just Cesar Chavez and Mexican-Americans, but of all people who worked for civil rights, Guadalupe Salazar, director of El Centro Student Services said, translating for the Collegian.
“It’s wonderful to bring different people together,” Salazar said. “The greatest gifts we have are the differences we share with people.”
Expressing the importance of breaking down cultural barriers, Salazar said it is essential for students to learn about other cultures and people.
“Look at the diversity in this room. Here’s where we start breaking down barriers,” Salazar said. “There is a lot of warmth in this room.”
This year’s celebration also marked the first anniversary of the Cesar Chavez awards, which honor high school students in Fort Collins who demonstrate the values of Cesar Chavez.
Individuals and student groups were honored for demonstrating values like empowering others, sacrificing themselves for other people, respect for life and building community.
Venessa Dominguez, a senior at Centennial High School, was the only student honored for her own hard work.
Dominguez works 25 hours a week to help support her parents and younger brother, while at the same time keeping up her grades and staying involved in school and church.
“(The award) shows that all my hard work pays off,” Dominguez said. “It makes me feel good. I really appreciate life and what I’m given.”
But Dominguez was quick to point out the help of her supporters: her parents and Centennial’s counselor, Lupe Lemos-Sigward.
“I have the best parents alive,” Dominguez said. “They help me with problems. My counselor, Lupe, inspired me in school to keep going.”
Lemos-Sigward who helped nominate Dominguez for the award said “she’s a wonderful role model for our students at Centennial. Her name came up right away for this award.”
Dominguez’s parents couldn’t be more proud.
“She’s an inspiration to me,” Dareen Dominguez said of her daughter. “We’re very proud of her.”
Dominguez said she will start cosmetology school after she graduates in May.
Beyond the awards, fun and celebration, Cesar Chavez day shows a side beyond accomplishment. It appreciates the work of Cesar Chavez, but also demonstrates the tough road ahead.
Currently, the United States Congress is debating the guest worker program in which extends citizenship to immigrants, who take low-paying jobs in the U.S, as well as other ideas for immigration reform.
“Cesar Chavez set up the movement,” Hernandez said. “But there is still a lot to do in Congress.”