Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Searching for Cesar Chavez in Portland, pt 4: City Council: the "Yes" panels

By Sean Cruz

There was little sign of Cesar Chavez in the Council chambers, even when the “Yes” panels were speaking. None had thought to bring a photograph to the hearing….

No one among those in the first panel up in support of renaming 39th Avenue identified himself/herself as a member of the mostly-secret Chavez Boulevard Committee, although until recently, Portland School Board member Martin Gonzalez’ picture was prominently displayed on the Committee’s website, indicating actual membership….

Former Mayor Tom Potter led off for the Yesses…God bless him, God love him, there is no doubt as to Tom Potter’s sincere wish to rename a Portland street for Cesar Chavez….

The fatal flaw from the beginning was the bad advice he received, which was maximized by way too much stubbornness into this street renaming obsession….

I recognize the former mayor’s sincere wish; my sincere wish is that rather than locking in on renaming a street, he had chosen instead to pour his energy into educating and mobilizing Portland to make a difference, somehow and somewhere, in the lives of actual farmworkers….

Having done that first, a fitting tribute to Cesar Chavez would likely have emerged organically and from the community itself….

…and I wish Tom would stop referring to Cesar Chavez solely as a “Latino” or “American”…neither label was what got Chavez arrested or prompted his activism…it was his Mexican face, and his life as a Mexican-American migrant farmworker, let’s be clear about that….

The former mayor’s closing restated his erroneous assumption that there is “a” community, and that we must all be alike….

“…ask you to give something back to a community, a community that has given us an American hero, a civil rights leader, a labor leader, an American of humble origins. Give us all a street named Cesar E Chavez Boulevard. Thank you.”

Zero points, Tom. We could have gotten something done that made a difference. You should have asked the question: “How are the children? How are the farmworkers’ children?”

Next up was Portland School Board Member Martin Gonzalez, stating that he was not a Boulevard Committee member, but not explaining why his photo was on their website for much of the past two years….

Mr. Gonzalez explained that a Latino presence in what is now the US goes back to Spanish settlement in the 16th Century….

Most Americans believe that history began on these continents with the arrival of the Europeans early in the 16th Century….

The spread of the Spanish language into North America certainly is the result of Spanish settlement, but in Mexico alone more than fifty indigenous languages are still in common use today…and if Oregon had become a state only ten years sooner, it’s southern border would have been with the Republic of Mexico and its northernmost state, Alta California….

The Portland School Board member earned an “F” for scholarship, and then quoted a passage from Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail instead of quoting any words from Cesar Chavez himself….

Mr. Gonzalez did not identify himself as a Mexican American, but a Latino…maybe you have to do that to get elected in this town, but the point is that this first panel did not include a single Mexican American…you’d think you would want to have one or two of those, if you are going to honor a Mexican American with the stature of Cesar Chavez….

Third up was Portland Development Commissioner Berta Ferran, probably a principle source of the bad advice the former mayor has been getting, speaking as a private citizen, as a Cuban refugee…now it starts to get complicated….

Ms Ferran: “Cesar Chavez is not just a Latino leader, he is an American hero.”

As Treasurer and a Board member of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Ms Ferran had to parse her words carefully….

Although Cesar Chavez has been often described as a Hispanic or Hispanic American, the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and its 618 member businesses have stayed completely away from the street renaming debate, indicating that the Chavez Boulevard Committee is on its own, as far as Hispanics are concerned, and that none of its member businesses desire to be located on a street named Chavez….

This would have been an important clarifying question to raise, may have settled for some the confusion between Latino and Hispanic communities….

Ms Ferran described Cesar Chavez: “He is a man who is a labor leader who fought for better wages and better conditions for the workers of America,” indicating that she really does not know too much specifically about Chavez, farm workers or the history of labor in America….

The first “Yes” panel wrapped up with Jeanna Frazzini, Executive Director of Basic Rights Oregon, who described BRO as “champions of equality and justice.”

Ms Frazzini stated: “We must face those in our community who marginalize immigrants, deprive them of due process and deny them equal opportunity.”

Note that Ms Frazzini and BRO have not participated in any actual campaign to address the unjust living and working conditions of Oregon farmworkers, and have not spoken in defense of farmworkers at any point in the firestorm of invective targeting mostly Mexican immigrants….

Each of these speakers apparently feels that he or she understands the plight of Oregon farmworkers and the obstacles to achieving justice well enough that they can smugly roll the dice regarding farmworkers’ futures with renaming a street….

The fact is that farmworkers will need support from the very same people that this street renaming effort is alienating.

Since none of the Chavez Boulevard Committee or their supporters are actively working to achieve justice for farmworkers, their rhetoric is a little stale and even condescending, but the real issue is how much damage they are willing to cause efforts to improve the living and working conditions of farmworkers in Oregon.

I’m still searching…more comments on the "Yes" panels coming soon....

Link to the City Council hearing video archive:

Sean Cruz writes BlogoliticalSean at

No comments: