- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

A group of community leaders and politicians in California has started a national campaign to create a federal holiday honoring the late labor leader Cesar E. Chavez, despite resistance from some local governments that remain split on the issue.

The group, which calls itself the Chavez Holiday Campaign, said it will hold a petition drive aimed at winning congressional and presidential approval to have a paid federal holiday commemorating Mr. Chavez, whom Hispanics of Mexican descent regard as a hero.

"Cesar Chavez is one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, and he deserves a holiday," said Evelina Alarcon, the campaign's national coordinator. "Cesar is the working-class David who fought the agri-business Goliath and won."

U.S. Reps. Susan A. Davis and Bob Filner, California Democrats, are supporting the effort. Mr. Filner submitted several resolutions in Congress last year calling for a national Chavez holiday.

Mr. Chavez founded the United Farm Workers union in the 1960s and sought better pay and working conditions for laborers through hunger strikes and boycotts. He died in 1993 at age 66. President Clinton posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.

The Cesar Chavez Foundation in Los Angeles supports the movement. "It would be a fitting tribute if it honors his values and philosophies," said Andres Irlando, the nonprofit foundation's executive director. "And if some states or cities decide against it, that's their decision to make."

So far, California is the only state that made his birthday March 31 a paid holiday for state employees. That effort, born in East Los Angeles, led to Gov. Gray Davis signing legislation in 2000.

Four other states Texas, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico have declared Cesar Chavez holidays. Colorado and New Mexico legislators are trying to put on the ballot this November an amendment that would make Cesar Chavez Day a paid state holiday. And, across the country, at least 29 schools, 17 streets, 17 libraries and parks, four plazas and one bridge have been named after Mr. Chavez since 1993.

But some city governments in California have resisted making the holiday a paid one for city workers. They also don't believe that the federal government should make Mr. Chavez's birthday a paid holiday for its employees.

"There are a lot more wonderful people out there whom we should honor like Ronald Reagan, who ended the Cold War, and Harry Truman, who ended World War II," said Bob McClellan, a City Council member from El Cajon, Calif., which has not approved a Chavez holiday for its workers.

"Cesar Chavez is important, but there are other people out there who did a lot for our nation. Mr. Chavez helped immigrant workers, but a lot of those are illegal," Mr. McClellan said.

City workers throughout California already have at least 12 holidays a year. Some cities like El Cajon in San Diego County just can't afford another paid holiday, Mr. McClellan argued. More money should be devoted to police and security, instead of giving workers another day off, he said.

The Chavez holiday also stirred a debate in Los Angeles last month, when the City Council there voted to substitute Columbus Day with Chavez Day at least for this year to save money. Another paid day off would cost the city an estimated $5 million, city officials said.

The decision drew a storm of protest from Americans of Italian descent, including former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and actor Joe Mantegna, who interpreted the council's action as racist and anti-Italian.

"We don't object to having a Chavez holiday, but don't take it away from Christopher Columbus and the Italian-American community," said Russ Rametta, president of the California Commission For Social Justice, Order Sons of Italy in America. "Columbus represents all immigrants, he represents all people."

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