KEENE (AP) — Hundreds gathered Thursday to see military honors bestowed at the graveside of Cesar Chavez, and despite more than two decades passing since his death, his sister said she felt his presence, just as he brought life to the farmworkers’ movement on the fields of Central California.
“I know he’s looking from above,” said 89-year-old Rita Chavez Martin, who sat front-and-center during the riffle salute and playing of taps. “His spirit is right here.”
Known for his humility, Chavez never sought recognition for his battles to improve the pay and working conditions for generations of laborers. But on the 22nd anniversary of his death, Chavez received full honors for part of his life that received little attention until recently — his stint in the U.S. Navy following World War II.
Born near Yuma, Arizona, Chavez used marches, boycotts and hunger strikes to bring attention to the plight of impoverished and overworked rural laborers. He formed the National Farm Workers Association, which later became United Farm Workers.
The slogan he popularized for farmworkers, “Si, se puede,” or “Yes, we can,” evolved to also become the presidential campaign slogan of Barack Obama. His image appears on murals and countless streets and city parks are named for him.
Mirtha Villarreal-Younger, deputy secretary for the California Department of Veterans Affairs and Army veteran, told the gathering that each street or city park bearing Chavez’s name is a beacon of hope for Latinos.
“Each of us has power within us to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks regardless of our humble beginnings,” she said. “Cesar led the way. He showed us how.”
The idea for the ceremony came from a current sailor, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Marco Valdovinos, who learned Chavez didn’t receive the honors at the time of his death after watching watched a film released last year capturing his life and work.
Valdovinos contacted the Chavez family with the idea of arranging the military honors, and he eventually led Thursday’s ceremony, handing Chavez’s widow, Helen, a folded U.S. Flag.
Paul Chavez, son of the civil rights leader, said his father’s death from natural causes in 1993, at age 66, surprised his family. No one asked for military recognition at the time.
“We just didn’t do it,” Paul Chavez said near his father’s memorial site, where crowds gathered in the foothills of the San Joaquin Valley for the service. “We were busy trying to comfort people and bury him with dignity. We had always focused on his work with farm workers” rather than his military service.
The ceremony wasn’t the only time the Navy has honored Chavez. In 2012 it launched a cargo ship named the USNS Cesar Chavez.
Though rarely discussed, Chavez’s Navy years, from 1946-48, set him on course to launch the farmworkers’ movement, Chavez spokesman and speechwriter Marc Grossman said.
“He was one of many Latinos who returned home” Grossman said, “and was not going to be satisfied with discrimination and poverty.”