Cesar Chavez's granddaughter: Courage is critical in this era of political division

Julie Chavez Rodriguez still remembers the pain she felt as a child when a woman told her, "I hope he dies this time," about her grandfather, farm worker advocate and labor leader Cesar Chavez.

She was just 10 years old and passing out fliers outside a Fresno grocery store about the need to ban certain pesticides on grapes to protect farm workers. She later lamented to her grandfather that she didn't have a comeback.

He had one. Next time, Chavez said, "just let her know that I'm sure that you're in his prayers, too."

Chavez Rodriguez — now state director for Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and a former senior deputy director for President Barack Obama — now understands the power of that response. Chavez wrote something similar in a farm worker prayer: "Help us love, even those who hate us, so that we can change the world."

Chavez Rodriguez shared this story during the 17th annual Cesar E. Chavez Celebration at Fresno State on Wednesday to commemorate her grandfather's birthday later this month.

Julie Chavez Rodriguez, granddaughter of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, gives the keynote speech as part of Fresno State's annual Cesar E. Chavez Celebration in the Madden Library on Wednesday, March 21, 2018, to commemorate his upcoming birthday on March 31. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

"He was committed to nonviolence and nonviolent social change," said Sudarshan Kapoor, an emeritus faculty member who started teaching at Fresno State five decades ago. "He's enshrined in history for his historic struggle for social justice and human rights for farm workers. Like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, he fought against discrimination, prejudice and oppression of his people. He restored confidence and fearlessness — keep that in mind, fearlessness — in farm workers who deserve to be treated with due respect and dignity, for they put the food on our tables."

Frank Lamas, vice president for the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, said the event is especially important to Fresno State because many of its students come from farm worker families.

"We have almost 25,000 students, and more than 50 percent of those are Latinos or Latinas here at Fresno State, and that number continues to grow over the last decade," Lamas said, "many of which come from the San Joaquin Valley."

The university has a program that assists 60 students from farm worker families each year, and Lamas said Fresno State has between 600 and 650 students who are "dreamers" — those eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).

Chavez Rodriguez also talked a little about policy. Farm workers outside California still don't receive overtime pay, she said, and that needs to change. She assured those in need that "we are here to be a support," and led a moment of silence for a farm-working couple from Delano — where she was born — who died in a crash last week fleeing immigration agents.

Chavez Rodriguez was a special assistant to Obama and the White House's senior deputy director of public engagement. Prior to that, she served as director of youth employment at the Department of the Interior, and as deputy press secretary to former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Her grandfather's work continues to inspire her own.

"I learned the true meaning of peace and nonviolence," she said, "and it wasn't something passive, but in fact, a really deeply personal commitment and sort of strength that you had to find inside of you."

She said in these times of "deep division" that it's even more important to find a "sense of what nonviolence looks like for us in action, what peace looks like for us in action."

"I learned what it means to have the courage and determination to stand up for what I believed in, and to not be afraid to do that," she said. "And I think that kind of courage is so important, now more than ever, when things like bigotry and hate have been given agency beyond anything that I would have imagined seeing again in my own lifetime."

She presented two certificates of recognition from Harris to the Cesar Chavez Celebration planning commission and the Cross Cultural and Gender Center and Latino/a Programs and Services.

The event ended with the ceremonial garlanding of Chavez's statue in the university's Peace Garden.

Julie Chavez Rodriguez, granddaughter of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, and Fresno State emeritus faculty member Dr. Sudarshan Kapoor, place a garland around the statue of Cesar Chavez in the Peace Garden at Fresno State as part of the university's annual Cesar E. Chavez Celebration on Wednesday, March 21, 2018, to commemorate his upcoming birthday on March 31. Chavez Rodriguez, state director for the Office of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, was the keynote speaker during Wednesday's commemoration in the Madden Library. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

A Cesar Chavez Blood Drive will continue from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday at Fresno State.

Victor Olivares, president of Latino/a faculty and staff who grew up working in the fields, thanked Chavez for his work.

"I can remember the days when there was no toilet paper for us, no water for us, no shade for us, but we still worked," Olivares said. "Cesar Chavez changed that. He became the voice for our parents, who couldn't articulate this, and the cry was to be treated fairly and to give our parents their rightful dignity as hard workers."

Chavez Rodriguez ended her keynote address with a quote from her grandfather:

"Once social change begins it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. I've seen the future, and the future is ours."

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge