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Lessons of resilience from César Chávez march

After a pandemic pause, the annual Austin march and rally honoring civil rights and labor leader César Chávez resumed. Here are some lessons learned at this year's 19th annual event.

Austin marked the return of its annual ¡Sí Se Puede! César Chávez March & Day of Action. Photo by Austin Vida
Austin marked the return of its annual ¡Sí Se Puede! César Chávez March & Day of Action. Photo by Austin Vida

After two years of navigating everything from disproportionately high COVID-19 rates in the comunidad to rapidly changing barrios, sí se pudo.

Austinites this weekend brought back the ¡Sí Se Puede! César Chávez March & Day of Action, a yearly event in honor of civil rights and labor movement leader César Chávez, who on March 31 would have celebrated his 95th birthday.

The 19th annual march - hosted by United By Our Roots, a group of community organizations and leaders - brought more than 100 residents together at Parque Zaragoza in East Austin, which was filled with homemade signs, lowriders, local artwork, música, spoken word and messages of hope.

It’s been clear throughout this pandemic that the resilience of our communities continues to shine through and this was evident at the march.

It could be felt in moments like when community leader Paul Saldaña led a chant from the stage: “¡ Aquí estamos, y no nos vamos!” or when youth stood alongside elders marching down East Austin streets.

They were reminders of the challenges we’ve been through as a community and a reminder of how together we can overcome obstacles ahead. These are a few of the lessons of resilience that rose during this year’s celebration.

Ensuring César Chávez’ legacy continues

On Saturday, PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources) Director Susana Almanza announced that after a decade of hosting the march, the organization was turning over hosting duties to United by Our Roots coalition.

This year, the coalition included organizations HABLA y VOTA Action Fund, MAS Cultura, Students Unidos at LBJ, Amigos de Parque Zaragoza, Travis County Constable George Morales, HOT Tejano radio, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME ) labor union.

“We're not saying we're going to give the torch to the next generation, we're going to say the next generation needs to pick up their own torch, right?” Almanza said. “And we need to work together to do that.”

During the march’s pandemic pause, residents honored Chávez these past two years through various volunteer events that included distributing personal protective equipment. Creating a coalition to host future marches means securing Chávez’ legacy in Austin.

Artwork by local artist Cassandra Garza was on display at Parque Zaragoza. Photo by Austin Vida
Artwork by local artist Cassandra Garza was on display at Parque Zaragoza. Photo by Austin Vida

Community power through parks

East Austin’s Parque Zaragoza, where the rally was held, has turned 90. It’s played a central role in the community throughout the decades and the Amigos de Parque Zaragoza have been working to reignite the spark it’s had over the years with an upcoming anniversary celebration.

Parque Zaragoza formerly hosted special events from tamale cook-offs to Austin’s Dieciséis de Septiembre events. Neighbors have lamented the lack of celebrations there, but seeing the community come together in honor of Chávez marked the start of a new beginning for the park.

Neighbors striving for change

After months of knocking on doors informing her neighbors about a proposed airport jet fuel tank farm in her McCall neighborhood, Amanda Carrillo said at the rally:

“We deserve to live in a healthy environment. We all deserve that.”

Carrillo’s resiliency as well as that of her neighbors and community organizations has been steadfast and an online petition has been created. District 2 City Council member Vanessa Fuentes told marchers that the City Council on April 7 plans to consider the relocation of that proposed site. She urged members of the comunidad to reach out to their council members with thoughts about the relocation before then.

Blazing paths of social justice

The moment Julio Herrera, now a musician, entrepreneur and community advocate, realized as a high school student that he had no social security number and wasn’t eligible for the financial aid necessary to pursue his university dreams, was the first time he truly felt different from his classmates.

He’d grown up in Austin’s Rundberg area, where he said life for him and his siblings wasn’t easy after their parents divorced and he grew angrier. He considers the incarceration of his best friend as a wake up call. Herrera shared:

“There was a spark that César Chávez gave me in order to serve and empower my community and protect it from injustice. We must educate our youth….We must teach them how to have a voice.”

Founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project Jim Harrington worked as an attorney with César Chávez. Photo by Austin Vida
Founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project Jim Harrington worked as an attorney with César Chávez. Photo by Austin Vida

Reading helped fuel change

During a time when our educators have been challenged in numerous ways, many of the rally’s speakers referenced Chávez’ avid love of reading.

Chávez’ migrant farmworker background meant he attended 37 different schools and because he had to help support his family, he was unable to complete his high school studies. Jose Noe Elias, a second grade teacher and Education Austin union member, told the crowd, Chávez was “a lifelong learner.” Despite his circumstances, Chávez remained committed to his education.

Former civil rights attorney Jim Harrington, who worked with Chávez, was also struck by his dedication to knowledge.

“Every time (César) stayed at the house, he had a bag of books,” Harrington said. “And when everybody went to bed, he was reading. When we were driving from one location to another, he was reading. (It’s) that power of education that we need for ourselves to think about what we're doing and how we're doing it.”

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