Cesar Chavez

Undeclared natural sciences junior Victor Encarnacion and architectural engineering junior Thanos Metaxas help build flower beds around a tree at Martin Middle School on Saturday afternoon. The Project, otherwise known as UT’s “largest day of service,” has been an annual event since 1999.
Photo Credit: Andy Nguyen | Daily Texan Staff

Despite dealing with multiple delays and cancellations because of inclement weather, more than 800 UT student volunteers met and performed service work for Austin’s Holly and East Cesar Chavez neighborhoods Saturday.

The Project, a program the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement runs, organized UT’s “largest day of service.” Students raked leaves, picked up trash and built flower beds after a two-hour delay. The volunteers were unable to carry out or complete many of the planned service projects, such as painting houses, because of the delay.

Math senior Javier Polo said about 2,000 student volunteers registered for The Project, but only 860 volunteers attended because the organization cancelled the afternoon shift, and shuttle buses were unable to transport students to the volunteer site.

“Since we weren’t able to bring hundreds of students from UT here to the neighborhood, we decided to focus all the resources to not all the sites, but to specific sites that had the most work that needed to be done and needed the most manpower,” Polo said.

Lori Renteria, a committee chair in the East Cesar Chavez Planning Team, said volunteers worked on repairing 25 homes for veterans and people with disabilities. Renteria said the students will have to return to complete the repairs and paint the homes as well.

Joe Washington, Austin Parks and Recreation community liaison, said the Austin community depends on the work of volunteer-based service organizations, such as The Project.

“Just the city staff and the tax dollars alone — that’s not enough to address all the needs we have in the community. We depend — the city and the community — on volunteer groups,” Washington said.

Public health senior Alyssa Koeter, a member of UT service fraternity Texas Alpha Phi Omega, said she has seen the impact The Project has made in the East Austin community.

“I’ve done this project at least three year in a row, and every time I come back, it seems like there’s always work to do, but every time I come back, I can see the difference we made the previous years,” Koeter said. “As long as we keep doing this every year, we’ll impact little parts of the community, and overall, within the next 10–20 years, we’ll see a big impact throughout the entire community.”

We Americans seem to have the idea that our great leaders have descended from heaven to be among us and guide us.  It’s a comforting thought, and one that relives us of personal responsibility. And the readymade leader was not the case with Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez, whose birthday we commemorate on March 31.

The problem with this narrative is that it absolves us of our duty as citizens to help mold and encourage the current and future leaders of our society. None of our great leaders suddenly appeared on the scene.  They emerged because their families, friends, teachers, neighbors – and even foes – helped make them who they became.

Cesar Chavez is a good example.  After returning from the Navy, he would spend Saturdays with his friends, drinking beer and tinkering with their cars – nothing unusual.  But every Saturday, a veteran community organizer named Fred Ross, who recognized César’s potential, would drop by and say “César, you can do better.” One Saturday, César said “like what?” and the rest is history.

Ross’ invitations, of course, did not happen in a vacuum.  It played off the background of César’s parents and religious upbringing. His friends, notably Dolores Huerta, later helped push him along.

César, who was born in 1927 and died in 1993, became one of the nation’s preeminent farm labor organizers and Mexican American leaders. He dedicated his life to improving the wages and working conditions of one of the country’s poorest and most exploited groups of workers, a large share of whom were in Texas.

Not only did César lead the historic non-violent movement for farm worker rights, but he also motivated thousands of others to commit themselves to social, economic, and environmental justice. And he helped inspire Hispanic community leaders to throw off the shackles of discrimination. 

César led the first successful farm workers union in U.S. history and won the first industry-wide labor contracts in American agriculture.  The United Farm Workers helped achieve dignity, respect, fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits, and humane working conditions for hundreds of thousands of farm laborers.

César’s influence on Texans extended far beyond the thousands of Texas farm laborers who worked as migrants in California.  His efforts to open the doors of colleges and universities to the Hispanic community reached deep into Texas, and, in turn, opened doors to economic and political opportunity.

People felt the justice of his cause. More than 50,000 people from all walks of life marched in his funeral procession under the hot Delano, California sun.

César’s birthday should not be just a day on which we honor his life, but a day on which we tell his narrative and re-commit ourselves to helping those around us become leaders in the struggle to make our community and our country a better place for our children and grandchildren. Those to whom we reach out may be our kids, friends, the young person next door, students, or people we know through our work. 

Whether that person becomes a future leader may depend on extending our hand to him or her, encouraging them, or perhaps just a frank person-to-person conversation.  Our history will be defined by our own willingness to help shape the current generation and the one to come.

Harrington, the director of Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation, worked with César Chávez in Texas for 18 years.


<strong>Celebrate Cesar Chavez<strong/>

Thursday may be the last time Texans celebrate Cesar Chavez Day if state Republicans have their way.

Cesar Chavez Day, celebrated in Texas on March 31, commemorates the famous Mexican-American worker rights and civil rights activist. It is celebrated in 10 states, according to the Cesar E. Chavez Holiday organization, and is an optional holiday in Texas.

Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, filed a bill this session that would eliminate Cesar Chavez Day and replace it with Texas Hispanic Heritage Day, which would observe “the battle for independence from Spain in Mexico, including the area now known as Texas.” The proposed holiday would be celebrated on Sept. 16.

Eliminating Cesar Chavez Day, a day that celebrates one of the most prominent and influential Mexican-Americans, and instead creating a holiday ultimately celebrating the great state of Texas, is hardly a replacement.

Just what is Lewis’ justification? “[Cesar Chavez’] connection to Texas was ephemeral at best, and if you think of all the Texans of all ethnicities who have made significant impacts, who are not recognized, it’s just always odd to me that Cesar Chavez was,” he told The El Paso Times.

Texas is hardly lacking in holidays that celebrate the state of Texas, and based on Lewis’ thoughts on the topic, he’s much less interested in celebrating Hispanic culture than simply making a political power play by tying up the Legislature with a pointless bill. We hope legislators focus on the more pertinent issues facing the Legislature this session and that Thursday will not be the state’s last celebration of Cesar Chavez.

<strong>Good riddance to Rick O’Donnell<strong/>

After complaints from UT System alumni, administrators and lawmakers, the UT System Board of Regents has reassigned controversial appointee Rick O’Donnell.

Why UT System chairman Gene Powell created the $200,000-per-year advisory position is unclear, especially when the job description closely matches that of Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. But what’s more troubling is O’Donnell’s work with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit conservative think tank.

In 2008, the foundation proposed seven radical reforms to higher education, including one that would emphasize “teaching and research as separate efforts in higher education.” While working with the foundation, O’Donnell published a paper that questioned the benefits and value of higher education research.

Though it is unfortunate that the System hired O’Donnell in the first place, the reassignment was a necessary move. O’Donnell is now a non-contract System employee who works under Scott Kelly, executive vice chancellor for business affairs. O’Donnell’s employment is expected to end Aug. 31, 2011, System spokesman Matt Flores told The Daily Texan.

In the meantime, he will still receive an exorbitant salary of $200,000 — money that could have instead been used to hire more associate professors, offer financial aid to students or cover 8 percent of Mack Brown’s salary.