You didn’t have to know Cesar Chavez to be inspired by him. Like millions of other people, he touched my life in a unique way.
In 1993, I had just been elected to the California Assembly. I heard of Cesar’s death at my first community meeting with local labor leaders. We were gathered in a local union hall. Silence fell upon the room. We did the only thing we could do at that moment. We prayed.
It was a strange feeling. The beginning of my career with labor started on the last day of a great labor leader’s life. But I felt the need and the passion to somehow do something to carry on his legacy and his work.
After all, it was Cesar who taught me to never give up. He reminded our nation that work is more than just a source of income. It is also a source of dignity. He fought to preserve our natural environment and its special connection to our health and our lives. He was one of the first environmentalists and practically invented the tools and techniques of social justice.
He involved everyone in the struggle, including children, who removed grapes from their fruit cocktail in school cafeterias to protest unsafe working conditions of California grape workers.
He got everyone’s attention, from U.S. Presidents to leaders around the world. He brought the plight of farm workers in America to anyone who would listen … and even to those who wouldn’t. Eventually, he knew they would.
Back in 2001 when I first came to the United States Congress, one of the first bills I wrote directed the National Park Service to study Cesar’s life, so we could create a memorial in his honor. Each year I was re-elected, I reintroduced the bill. We passed it through the House, but it stalled in the Senate. But we never gave up. It passed in the Senate in 2008.
On Monday, President Obama designated Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz (Cesar’s home, burial site and the headquarters of the United Farm Workers of America) as a national monument. It is the place where civil rights were born for millions of Latino families. And it will be a place of reflection, education and inspiration for generations to come—and a constant reminder to never give up.