Many people in Washington state do not know what day March 31 is or what it means to those who work as farm laborers.
March 31 is César Chávez Day, a day set aside to commemorate his life and his efforts for the farm labor movement. It is also a day to promote community service in honor of Chávez’s life and work.
It is a state holiday in California, Colorado and Texas. In those states, state government offices, community colleges, public schools and libraries are closed.
But who was Chávez?
César Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, in San Luis, Ariz. As an adult, he became a significant Mexican-American labor and civil rights leader who used nonviolence to fight for the rights of migrant farm workers in the southwestern United States.
Growing up as a migrant farmworker, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he returned to the States and re-entered the work force as a farmworker in California.
It was a hard life since migrant farm workers are people who work and move from farm to farm, and town to town as various crops become ripe and hand labor is needed.
In the early 1950s and 1960s, being a farm laborer was not only hard work that paid very little, it was also dangerous due to the pesticides used at the time and the way they were used.
Living and working condition were also terrible. Amenities such as drinking water, toilets and decent housing were nonexistent.
In 1952, Chávez started his work as a farm labor activist. Along with Delores Huerta, he founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. The group’s name was later changed to the United Farm Workers.
They advocated for the rights of farm workers by demanding better wages and improved working conditions and safety for farm workers in the fields. Chávez led many strikes, boycotts of agricultural products, and marched in order to help farm workers.
It took several years to accomplish change. Legislators voted in the late 1960s to make laws that required growers to improve conditions of farm workers.
Besides helping farm workers gain better working conditions, Chávez advocated for better education so workers and their families could learn to read and write. He also organized voting registration drives for farm workers who were U.S. citizens.
Chávez’s motto was “Si, se puede.” (“Yes, it can be done.”) He proved it to be true.
Chávez was a good man who dedicated his life to helping others and advocating for their civil rights using the principles of civil rights leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Chávez inspires me to help others in any way I can. In January, I was at the state capital to meet with our state representatives and senators to advocate for the state New Hope Act, formerly called The Dream Act. It allows undocumented students to be eligible for state financial aid for college.
This opportunity gave me a chance to learn about the number of undocumented students who have worked hard for what they want to accomplish through higher education. I had the chance to talk to our state Sen. Mike Hewitt, and state Reps. Maureen Walsh and Terry Nealey about the bill.
At that time, the bill was in question in the Senate, so for me to be able to talk to Hewitt was very important. Just by being able to talk to him in person for a couple of minutes gave me the opportunity to be an advocate and tell him my opinion and my thoughts about the need for this bill to pass so these undocumented students can be part of the future.
They deserve financial aid because they are good students and they need the help to accomplish their goals. At the time of my discussion, he supported this bill.
Even though the New Hope Act doesn’t impact me since I am an American citizen, I support it because I feel undocumented students who are looking to further their education should have access to financial aid for college.
Even though Hewitt in the end voted no on the bill, the majority of the Senate agreed with me. In the House, Nealey and Walsh voted in support of the bill.
The New Hope Act was signed into law by Gov. Jay Islee on Feb. 25.
Veronica Ocampo is a student leader and the vice president of the Walla Walla High School Latino Club. At Walla Walla High School, she is a participant in the AVID program, Link Crew as a group leader, and Future Business Leaders of America. As a junior, she is currently a member of the 2014 Sherwood Trust Leadership Class.