Cesar Chavez Day

2nd annual tribute features granddaughter of activist

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – Christine Chavez will speak Saturday at the First Parish Church on Congress Street, at the 2nd annual celebration that honors her grandfather, Cesar Chavez. President Barack Obama is in town this weekend as well, and as a long-time supporter of Chavez’s work, it was no surprise when the White House this week proclaimed Saturday a day to remember the labor activist and hunger striker who formed United Farm Workers fifty years ago.

Chavez would have been 85, and his granddaughter, who works for Obama in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will speak of his legacy in the 21st century. She was first arrested for protesting when she was four years old, and has since lived a life devoted to civil rights.

“Beyond her work with the UFW, Chavez has closely worked with Service Employee International Union 1877, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees,” a press release for the event read. “She has engaged in numerous personal projects, including involvement with the Latino and African American Leadership Alliance and the Gen II Project, which involved a peace delegation of children and grandchildren of notable world peacemakers to meet with foreign leaders on human rights violations.”

Chavez will address locals assembled for the event from a variety of political and commercial persuasions.

Michael Brennan, mayor of Portland, Rev. Christina Sillari, and Dr. Gerald Talbot, NAACP Founder & former state legislator, will all speak. Dr. Ralph Carmona, executive director of the Maine Global Institute, which is hosting, will give opening and closing comments.

“Christine Chavez grew-up in her grandfather’s non-violent civil rights movement of pickets and protests. She faced the first of many arrests for civil disobedience at four years of age. Taking to heart her grandfather’s legacy, she has come to master the art of modern day campaigning and community organizing,” according to the press release. “She previously worked for the California Legislature and as UFW director on pubic campaigns aimed at protecting farm worker and immigrant civil rights.”

The First Parish celebration began locally last year when Carmona initiated it. He had moved from Sacramento, California, in February, 2010, where he’d been teaching political science at American River College. In 2004, he and Vana Smith, a native Mainer, were married, and six years later they switched coasts. “We’d visited Maine before, and had always loved it,” he said.

When first arriving to Maine, he worked on fundraisers for a Portland immigrant initiative ballot measure and the local Democrat Party, and taught a course called “Portland’s Future” for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USM. These experiences coalesced into a decision to run for mayor of Portland. That bid was unsuccessful, but since that time he has remained active in civic affairs.

He met with Governor Paul LePage regarding general assistance, and they discussed the Cesar Chavez conference room, whose name-plate had been removed. “I’m disappointed in the court ruling,” Carmona said of the recent decision supporting LePage’s acts. Though that disappointment doesn’t sap his energy to keep pushing the Maine prospect of population change.

“It’s an inevitable demography,” Carmona said. “Portland High School is 35 percent immigrant. But Maine is the most elderly state, the most homogenous state. We need young people with skills. Without the Sudanese and other African immigrants, we’d have zero population increase.”

In dealing with what he described as a “gray tsunami,” a dangerous storm of only elderly, Carmona said the purpose of Maine Global Institute is to tackle different forms of migration, high and low end immigrants, Africans, young people, and retirees. “People come and form niches. The Irish did it, the Jews did it. The African immigrants are doing it now,” Carmona said.

The next step for MGI is to formalize an advisory group. “We don’t want a board-of-directors type of group,” Carmona said. “We want to help assist the state in creatively integrating increased diversity, through economic and sustainable growth.”

These changes won’t come easily, he asserted, and will require a wide variety of people to work well together. Evidence of that mixed group will be on hand Saturday, as two panel discussions explore the many facets of Chavez’s life.

Christopher Hall, senior vice-president of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, will moderate a discussion called “Cesar’s Values and Human Capital.” The panel will include Dr. Abdifatah Ahmed, executive director of Atlantic Global Aid, Shawn Moody, president and CEO of Moody’s Collision Centers, Jennifer Hutchins, the executive director of Creative Portland Corporation, Charles Scontras, labor historian at the University of Maine, and Juan Perez-Febles, monitor advocate at the Maine Department of Labor.

Dr. Ronald G. Cantor, president of Southern Maine Community College, will moderate a discussion called “Cesar’s Values and Human Rights.” The panel will include Robert Talbot, of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP, Ricardo Cabezas, president of Centro Latino, Rev. Sillari of First Parish, El-Fadel Arbab, Darfur genocide survivor and educator, and Marc Mutty, director of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

This type of dialogue is an important first step, Carmona said. “I’m willing to bet that, in two to four years, we’ll be dying for more migration. This is a real opportunity for us to embrace the challenge, make Maine more receptive to these immigrants. People must realize that migration as human capital matters, regardless of income or color.”

If Maine fails to opens its arms to a growing diversity, Carmona is concerned that, like much of the nation, our provincial nature will come back to haunt us. “Our American economy is concentrating in an unprecedented fashion and people are making less than 30 years ago, often less than their parents. Public sector unions are struggling and private sector unions have been in major decline for more than 30 years. Laboring people are suffering because respect for the economic value they add is diminishing and destroying the middle class,” he said.

Members of OccupyMaine are intent on making President Obama make good on the Chavez promise when he’s in town this weekend. They want to dedicate a plaque to Chavez in Lincoln Park, to commemorate where he spoke in 1974, and where the Occupy movement was stationed for much of the past year. “Friends of Lincoln Park” is mainly made up of Occupiers, according to Heather Curtis, “and people who want the park to become a civic center where you can engage in public discourse.” Curtis, one of four individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought by Occupy Maine against Portland, said it’s fitting that Obama sought to honor Chavez, but wants to hold the President’s “feet to the fire.”

“There are a lot of billionaires in town this weekend. He’s having an expensive party at the Portland Museum of Art, and so we’re serving soup on Congress Square. We think he’s the best man for the job, but we want the big money out of politics,” Curtis said.

If anyone’s message could unite such disparate parties, perhaps it is the lesson taught by Chavez. “Equality Maine and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland are both sponsoring the event. Only someone like Cesar Chavez could bring those two together,” Carmona said. “He was the only civil rights leader in the 1970’s to support gay rights. His granddaughter supports gay marriage. Like her grandfather, they were both committed Catholics.”

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