I grew up in a part of the country where the story of Cesar Chavez is not widely shared. It wasn’t until I began traveling as a junior account executive in my early 20’s that I began to hear unfamiliar references about Cesar Chavez and the Chicano movement. I was young, with a busy schedule, growing ambitions, and wide gaps of knowledge. I couldn’t be bothered with history lessons.
Unfortunately, this ignorance colored much of my youth.
I thought Chicano meant Latino from Chicago. I was confused by the slogan, “Si, se puede” because I had always been taught, “Yes, you will.” But shamefully, I never correlated the labor movement for equal rights of farmers with my mother’s own struggles as a seamstress at a factory in Miami.
The stories of Latinos in our country are remarkably similar, when seen through a different lens.
My mother worked many long hours. Toiling on a sewing machine throughout nights and weekends. Back then she would be paid according to how many garment pieces she sowed together. A sleeve was .10 cents. A back panel was .20 cents. Each Friday night she’d tally up her tabs, tape them on a timesheet and record her weekly earnings. All with no complaints.
I remember moments when, exhausted after long hours, she would accidentally pierce her finger with the machine’s needle—catching it in the very garments she was producing. Slowly and carefully, she’d press the floor pedal and reach the turn-wheel with her free hand to unwind herself. Then she’d cradle her wound in cold water until it stopped bleeding and would get back to work.
I spent many years in high school angry with my mother’s bosses. Not knowing what to do. When I graduated college with a degree in communications, I threatened my mom with calling the local news to investigate her factory for mistreatment of workers if she didn’t speak up about her working conditions. (No health insurance. Long hours. Abusive supervisors. Low wages.) She’d yell at me and insist I stay quiet. “No te pongas en eso, muchacha!” (“Don’t get involved!”)
It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I finally came to know the story of Cesar Chavez. Now, when I hear Dolores Huerta speak of his fight for equal rights, fair pay, dignity for workers—my heart aches. I had missed this. Their story and struggles weren’t taught in my schools. I never connected its importance. If I’d had an example to draw from, maybe I would’ve known how to fight for my mom more effectively.
But, life has ways of surprising you. When you walk with purpose and an open heart, it teaches you many lessons you didn’t even know you were ignorant of. Today I’m the executive director of the American Latino Heritage Fund (ALHF). A Fund created by Secretary Ken Salazar, and established within the National Park Foundation, focused on telling the stories of American Latinos. We work to ensure that all people know of the contributions of all Americans throughout our whole history.
Each day, I discover something new about our national heritage. Each day, I have conversations with others, Latinos and non-Latinos, who tilt their heads at untold tales about our history with a collective, “Really!?”
Cesar Chavez National Monument
It is not surprising to me how little we know of each other; and the confusion, misinformation and tension that results because of this knowledge gap. We need to look no further than the incorrect links connecting Monday’s momentous celebration to designate the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument with the president Hugo Chavez’s win during the Venezuelan elections. They are not the same people. They are not related. The teaching of an inclusive version of American history will ensure that the next generation understands the critical difference, as well.
ALHF exists to help identify sites and places that tell our stories and to introduce us to public lands, National Parks and historic places where we can go visit, learn and enjoy. We are proud to provide the funding necessary to establish the Cesar Chavez National Monument as the 398th park in the national park system. Work like this fulfills a critical component of the ALHF mission—to preserve the full spectrum of American Latino history in the U.S. by telling a more inclusive story of the American experience.
I hope my work today means that when a young girl from the East Coast walks into a room full of Chicanos, she doesn’t think she’s walking into a room full of Latinos from Chicago. So that when someone references Cesar Chavez, others don’t jump to conclusions because of a shared last name.
This entails celebrating the unique patches that makes up our national fabric, not highlighting differences. Because our national identity relies on knowing the full scope of history, if only so that we can better know ourselves.