Colorado History

While Denver Celebrates Cesar Chavez Day, Columbus Still Afloat in Colorado

César Chávez (left) came to Denver to support local activist Corky Gonzales.
Denver Public Library/Rocky Mountain News Collection
César Chávez (left) came to Denver to support local activist Corky Gonzales.
Happy Cesar Chavez Denver, at least. Today, March 25, the Mile High City will observe the legacy of legendary civil rights and labor movement activist Cesar Chavez by locking government offices (including the libraries), making parking meters free and leaving trash cans in the street. The city's been observing the holiday on the last Monday of March for close to two decades, ever since Denver City Council made a trade and dumped the embattled Columbus Day back in 2001.

That's a move that the State of Colorado is not yet ready to make. Colorado was the first state to celebrate Columbus Day as an official state holiday, back in 1907, and although there have been recent proposals to replace Columbus Day with another, less controversial holiday, those efforts have all failed.

Last year the idea was to dump Columbus Day in favor of Election Day, a state holiday on the first Tuesday of November; this year Representative Adrienne Benavidez returned with another plan, to replace Columbus Day with Colorado Day on August 1, the day that the Centennial State joined the union in 1876. But that proposal lost in committee earlier this month. "But, we are very resilient and will continue to work this summer to win senators over to the importance and need for the bill," Benavidez says.

While Columbus Day is still afloat in this state, Colorado does honor César Chávez, too. Back in 2001, when Denver City Council ditched Columbus, the legislature approved making March 31 Cesar Chavez Day, to mark the labor leader's birthday. But it's not an official state holiday; instead, it's an optional day off for state workers, who can trade it for an actual official holiday.

In 2014, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 31 Cesar Chavez Day; it's a U.S. federal commemorative holiday, which means that the government does not take the day off. Here's his proclamation:

On Cesar Chavez Day, we celebrate one of America's greatest champions for social justice. Raised into the life of a migrant farm worker, he toiled alongside men, women, and children who performed daily, backbreaking labor for meager pay and in deplorable conditions. They were exposed to dangerous pesticides and denied the most basic protections, including minimum wages, health care, and access to drinking water. Cesar Chavez devoted his life to correcting these injustices, to reminding us that every job has dignity, every life has value, and everyone — no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you come from — should have the chance to get ahead.

After returning from naval service during World War II, Cesar Chavez fought for freedom in American agricultural fields. Alongside Dolores Huerta, he founded the United Farm Workers, and through decades of tireless organizing, even in the face of intractable opposition, he grew a movement to advance "La Causa" across the country. In 1966, he led a march that began in Delano, California, with a handful of activists and ended in Sacramento with a crowd 10,000 strong. A grape boycott eventually drew 17 million supporters nationwide, forcing growers to accept some of the first farm worker contracts in history. A generation of organizers rose to carry that legacy forward.

The values Cesar Chavez lived by guide us still. As we push to fix a broken immigration system, protect the right to unionize, advance social justice for young men of color, and build ladders of opportunity for every American to climb, we recall his resilience through setbacks, his refusal to scale back his dreams. When we organize against income inequality and fight to raise the minimum wage — because no one who works full time should have to live in poverty — we draw strength from his vision and example.

Throughout his lifelong struggle, Cesar Chavez never forgot who he was fighting for. "What [the growers] don't know," he said, "is that it's not bananas or grapes or lettuce. It's people." Today, let us honor Cesar Chavez and those who marched with him by meeting our obligations to one another. I encourage Americans to make this a national day of service and education by speaking out, organizing, and participating in service projects to improve lives in their communities. Let us remember that when we lift each other up, when we speak with one voice, we have the power to build a better world.

The Cesar Chavez Peace and Justice Committee of Denver had organized the eighteenth annual Cesar Chavez March on Saturday, March 30, but plans were recently adjusted because of the weather. There will be no march; instead, programming will begin at 11 a.m. at Su Teatro, 727 Santa Fe Drive. Get updates on the Peace and Justice Committee Facebook page.