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NM congressional members seek to honor César Chávez

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The accomplishments of labor organizer and civil rights activist César Estrada Chávez, who died in 1993, were celebrated by some this weekend.

New Mexico is among the states that hold events for the day. A legislative effort to declare it a state holiday passed the House but did not get to a vote before the full Senate during the recent session of the 2019 New Mexico Legislature. The day is a state holiday in California, Texas and Colorado, and it was declared a federal commemorative holiday from 2014 to 2016 by former President Barack Obama.

Celebrations in New Mexico were scheduled Saturday at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. In addition, four members of the New Mexico congressional delegation have signed Senate and House resolutions regarding Chávez.

Chávez, who received the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize in 1974 and a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, was known for his labor rights work with the National Farm Workers Association, which he helped to found in 1962 along with Dolores Huerta. That group later became the United Farm Workers of America.

The UFW sought to improve the wages and working conditions of migrant farm workers and protect their rights. The efforts of the group and Chávez are credited for the passage of the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. It established the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and gave farm workers the right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.

Chávez was a migrant farm worker starting at age 10 after his family lost their own farm. Leaving school in the eighth grade to help support his family, he entered the U.S. Navy at 17, serving for two years. He later married Helen, and they had eight children.

He became active in civil rights efforts in 1949. In 1952, he joined the Community Service Organization, a Latino voting and civil rights group, becoming a national director. He left that group when he formed the National Farm Workers Association.

Chávez himself espoused nonviolent methods to affect change, tactics such as boycotts, fasting, protests, marches, voting drives and legislative efforts. But some of the people who aligned themselves with his organization and causes were accused of violence. United Farm Workers also have been criticized by some for harsh treatment of illegal immigrants, who were sometimes imported into the United States as farm workers during UFW strikes.

U.S. Reps. Debra Haaland, D-1st District; and Ben Ray Lujan, D-3rd District, are among the 70 representatives to sponsor House Resolution 266, which would recognize March 31 as César Chávez Day. U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-Santa Fe; and Martin Heinrich, D-Albuquerque, are two of 20 senators sponsoring Senate Resolution 129 recognizing the accomplishments of Chávez.