Tucson's new holiday celebrating César Chávez reminds us that change happens one step at a time

About 25 years ago, when I was a rather unstable and impressionable young man just embarking on a career as a professional troublemaker, I worked for an organization named Ohio Citizen Action. It was built on the premise that you could walk the streets, knock on doors and convince perfect strangers to contribute money and/or time to whatever cause or issue you were pitching. We called it canvassing.

There were many canvassing organizations in the Midwest, and every year their canvassers gathered by the hundreds at regional conferences to build skills in workshops, listen to motivational speakers, network with fellow travelers, drink too much, dance like fiends and succumb to impossible love affairs with like-minded idealists—the usual stuff people do at conferences.

One year, César Chávez was a keynote speaker. I'd never seen anyone quite like him, even though we worked in the same business—the business of organizing. For one thing, there were no Latinos in my homogenous, exurban Ohio community, other than my high school Spanish teacher. Moreover, Chávez spoke from a perspective—and with the authority—of someone who had raised himself up, along with thousands of compañeros, from poverty to power. I couldn't even imagine the conditions he faced as a farmworker or the political repression that countered his efforts.

His speech was moving and insightful, and at the end he crystallized the power of canvassing with an anecdote from his experience as a founder and leader of the United Farm Workers. He recounted a conversation he'd had with an eager young muchacho who approached him in awe one day and asked, "How did you do it, César? How'd you make the United Farm Workers?" Chávez answered matter-of-factly: "Well, you knock on one door, you talk to one person, and then you move on."

Not satisfied, the boy pressed him further. "No, I mean how did you make this huge movement, with the boycotts and famous people and political power?" Chávez deadpanned, "Well, you knock on one door ..." The rest was submerged in collective laughter as hundreds of young canvassers in the audience recognized themselves in the boy, along with the fundamental truth of Chávez's fable.

That story was a riff on a theme that Chávez repeated countless times—the notion that you don't have to (nor can you) snap your fingers and change things overnight in order to make a difference in the world. You need only set things in motion, reach people one at a time, start small and never stop pushing—and sooner or later profound changes will result from sheer momentum. "Once social change begins," he said, "it cannot be reversed."

The Tucson City Council added to that momentum last week by unanimously adopting a new holiday for city workers in honor of Chávez, coinciding with the Monday nearest to his March 31 birthday, starting next year. The council also urged people to make it a day of service to their community, as is often the case with the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

Congratulations to Councilwoman Regina Romero and the César E. Chávez Holiday Coalition for striking this chord of remembrance and call to action here in Arizona, the state in which Chávez was born. But this holiday could easily be called "Dolores Huerta and César Chávez Day," because she stood with him at the beginning and still stands strong today, 20 years after his death.

Huerta came to Tucson for a luncheon the day the Council took action. She said it was the first luncheon anyone had ever thrown for her, which is kind of hard to believe, considering her lifetime of service to the cause of justice for workers and all people. She noted that Chávez's mother once worked as a maid for the University of Arizona president, and now there is a building on campus named for her son. Change is most easily recognized across generations, but most often created day by day.

Tucson's César Chávez Day is a stand-in for Dolores Huerta, for the young boy who struggled to grasp Chavez's organizing ethic, for all of the Chicano activists who fought on the front lines for justice in Tucson decades ago, and for everyone else who has ever banded with others to put the poor and powerless on a path to equality and dignity.

There's no need to wait until next year to observe César Chávez's birthday. On Saturday, March 29, a march and rally in Tucson will celebrate his life and legacy. It starts at 9 a.m. at Pueblo High School and ends at Rudy Garcia Park. Put your feet in the streets—la lucha sigue!

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