‘Sí se puede!’

Latino, labor activists join to celebrate César Chávez
The Colorado Statesman

A capacity crowd danced the night away at a VFW hall in West Denver on March 26 to celebrate the legacy of César Chávez at the dinner-dance sponsored by the local council of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.

State Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, dances with her father, Frank, at the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement’s annual César Chávez dinner-dance on March 26 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia talks about education’s value as “the key to long-lasting social change” at a dinner thrown by the local Labor Council for Latin American Advancement to honor César Chávez.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Pioneering Latina Polly Baca takes a spin around the dance floor with her son Miguel Barragán after she received the civil servant award at the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement’s annual César Chávez dinner-dance on March 26 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Former Denver City Council President Ramona Martinez thanks the crowd for the LCLAA lifetime dedication award given to her husband, Lawrence, who was unable to attend because he is battling cancer.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Former legislators local AFL-CIO Executive Director Mike Cerbo, left, and Denver City Councilman Doug Linkhart, a candidate for mayor, catch up at the LCLAA dinner-dance.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
State Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, and his wife, Sharron, enjoy the food and festivities at the César Chávez dinner-dance.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Vicky Hardy accepts a posthumous lifetime dedication award for “Uncle Walt” Beckert, her longtime fiancé, at the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement’s annual César Chávez dinner-dance on March 26 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“César Chávez understood that by investing in others, we make a better life for ourselves,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, wrapping up a rollicking speech before a crowd of about 300 activists, union organizers and politicians. “We need to continue to make investments in our young people, we need to recognize that we have a shared future, and we need to recognize the important values of dignity, justice, fairness and equality for all workers. That is what César Chávez stood for and fought for, and that is what I think everyone in this room understands.”

Garcia concluded with the motto of Chávez’ United Farm Workers union: “Sí se puede!” (Roughly translated, “Yes, we can!”)

The fourth-annual dinner and dance — capping a day that began with a nearby march honoring Chávez’ legacy and falling before the Monday observance of César Chávez Day, an optional state holiday — honors the Mexican-American farm worker, union organizer and civil rights activist, said Brynn McKenna, LCLAA local secretary-treasurer and one of the event’s coordinators. LCLAA raises money for a scholarship honoring legendary Colorado union organizer Tim Flores and to work on job training and immigration reform issues.

After recounting Chávez’ rise from the fields to an international labor leader — and reminding the crowd that the 100th anniversary of the galvanizing Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred the day before — Garcia said organizers should never forget the challenges faced by low-income and immigrant workers.

“For those of us in government, for those of us in the private sector, we need to be reminded — and you can remind us of this — that we must not see workers or organized labor as our enemy but as our partner, our partner in creating a better economic environment for everybody,” Garcia said.

He urged voters to disregard empty promises from politicians and said it would be a mistake to support anyone simply because of party affiliation or a Latino last name. “We should vote for people who care about and will act upon issues that are important to our community,” he said. “Don’t let any party take you for granted.”

After extolling the value of education as “the key to long-lasting social change,” Garcia turned his attention to the state’s fiscal crisis and defended the Hickenlooper administration’s budget proposals.

“I say I care about education, and the governor says he cares about education, and yet we submitted a budget that cut education by over $300 million. We’re not proud of that,” he said. He went on to say that the only “signal” the governor’s budget was sending was that “we cannot spend money we don’t have,” and that it wasn’t an attack on organized labor or teachers’ unions in particular. Unlike Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Garcia said, “We are not attacking any of those.”

Before the Latin-funk band Jazz del Barrio got everyone dancing, LCLAA officials handed out awards to activists who embody the ideals of Chávez:

• The civil servant award went to pioneering lawmaker and life-long activist Polly Baca, who was the first Latina elected to Colorado’s state Senate in the 1970s and has been a member of the Democratic National Committee for decades.

• The Fred Ross Sr. award, named for a Chavez associate, went to Scott Kwasny, executive director of Colorado Jobs with Justice. The award honors “the person who can get the job done,” McKenna said.

• The César E. Chávez Award — for the person who best models him or herself after the award’s namesake — went to ubiquitous activist Cecilia Flores, a smiling presence at just about every Latino, labor and Democratic Party event in town.

• Special lifetime dedication awards went to Walt Beckert and Lawrence Martinez. Beckert, known as “Uncle Walt,” recently passed away and his long-time fiancé, Vicky Hardy, accepted the award on his behalf. Former four-term Denver City Councilwoman Ramona Martinez accepted the award for her ailing husband, who couldn’t attend.

LCLAA also presented certificates to 14 protesters arrested last year during a civil disobedience demonstration against immigration policies.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com