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What Is Cesar Chavez's Connection To Oregon?

Next week, Portland City Council will vote on whether to rename 39th Avenue for the storied civil rights activist Cesar Chavez.

While discussion around the issue has generated a great deal of heat, it hasn’t always shed light on Chavez’s legacy in Oregon. April Baer reports.

In 1971 Don Willner was a state senator who’d spent several years defending farm workers’ rights. In the midst of a fierce legislative battle, Willner picked up an out-of-town guest at the Portland airport.

PosterDon Willner: “Cesar Chavez (soft laugh) looked like a working guy. He was wearing working clothes, as if he were working the fields.”

Willner escorted the famous activist to the state capitol in Salem. Chavez was scheduled to address a rally of 5000 people.

Don Willner   “We get down there, there’s a crowd of people there. An Anglo involved in working on the program—has no idea who he was, and says, ‘Hey, fella, would you pass out these sandwiches?’ (giggle) Cesar Chavez takes the sandwiches, passes them out to people in the group, then goes up to the steps of the state capitol and makes the keynote address.” (laugh)

To Willner, it was classic Chavez. In the end, Oregon Governor Tom McCall vetoed the bill Chavez spoke against.

In the 60s and 70s,  Oregon’s small but growing Latino community was paying attention to the political battles Chavez fought in Texas, the Midwest, and California’s Central Valley.

Joseph Gallegos: “I actually drove down to Delano. I had a little van with flowers on it at the time, and drove to the farmworkers’ headquarters.” 

Joseph Gallegos was a grad student during the 70s — a life-long Portlander with a developing sense of his own Latino identity. He didn’t get to meet Chavez on that trip, but he became an early staffer for  Oregon’s independent Chicano college-without-walls – a first of its kind: the Colegio Cesar Chavez at Mount Angel.

Joseph Gallegos:   “In its time, the Colegio was a critical symbol of our presence, the Latino presence here in the state, and also I think trying to bring attention to the problem the Colegio was trying to address, that Latinos were not getting through the four-year institutions."

Gallegos notes that problem persists to this day. The Colegio graduated  more than twenty people before folding in 1983.

The legacy of Cesar Chavez is somewhat mixed depending on where you go in the state.

Some farm owners have a different reaction than farm workers to his name. But if nothing else, Chavez’s legacy continues to remind Oregonians that behind crops like grapes and lettuce, there are people.