Edward James Olmos commemorates Chávez

By Kimberly Drelich

Academy Award-nominated actor and activist Edward James Olmos asked, “How far do we have to go?” of students and community members from across Chicago at the International House on Friday, April 15, for the University’s Fourth Annual César Chávez Event. His question highlighted the evening’s theme of remembering the legacy of César Chávez, the 1962 founder of the National Farm Workers Association—later the United Farm Workers (UFW)—who worked until his death in 1993 to improve the rights of farm workers.

Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan organized the event, which included speeches from Juan Mora-Torres, assistant professor of history at DePaul University, and Jesús García, director of Little Village Community Development. The importance of education and an increased awareness of the history of Mexican-Americans were emphasized throughout the evening.

U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, Stand and Deliver lead actor, and a friend of Chávez’s, Olmos began his speech, which mixed moments of hilarity with those of somber reflection, by criticizing English-only legislation. “If it is true what César said, that education is the key to the understanding of one’s self and the ability to survive and move forward to the fullest, then why are we putting those words [“English” and “only”] together today?” he said.

Olmos stressed that Chávez’s belief in educating the mind is especially relevant today. “A bachelor’s degree today is what a high school diploma was 30 years ago,” he said. “And we have, what, 52 percent of the total population of the United States of America of Latinos don’t even get out of high school? It hurts.”

He also pointed out that U.S. education fails to adequately represent the history of other cultures. When he asked audience members if they could name an Asian-American or Latino-American national hero studied in school, only a handful raised their hands.

Olmos discussed the need to understand that “race is not a cultural determinant.” He reminded audience members that, genetically speaking, they are 99.9 percent identical to the person sitting next to them.

García, who spoke later, said that Chávez’s legacy was one of “multi-racial organizing” and immigrants’ rights. “We must speak out against abuses and injustices of immigrant workers and we must continue to fight and struggle for an amnesty or legalization program that will enable the sons and daughters of immigrants to become U.S. citizens, to attend universities like the University of Chicago,” said García.

He also stressed the urgency of the current labor situation, underscoring that in the U.S. today there are approximately seven to nine million undocumented workers—three times more than in the era of the UFW.

“The future is of diversifying the community, whether or not we call it affirmative action,” said García when asked what responsibilities universities, such as the University of Chicago, had toward reaching out to the community and promoting diversity.

Latino students made up of 9 percent of the College’s population in 2004, and there were 20 Latino faculty members at the University in 2003.