Labor rights leader César E. Chávez used
to tell Julio Guerrero, “As long as there are people in the fields,
we’ll never be free.”
“He could also be talking about people in
substandard conditions in Detroit, or homeless people in Kalamazoo,”
Guerrero said. “He was striving for all of us to have an equal, decent
Guerrero, of Lansing, is a member of
Lansing for César E. Chávez, a volunteer organization first formed with a
mission of “preserving the legacy of César E. Chávez through education,
commemoration, service and self-determination.” The group formed in
early 2010 to support the efforts to rename Grand River Avenue in Old
Town for Chavez. Since that came to pass a year ago, the group continues
to work on new ways to impact the community.
On Saturday, the group hosts a
Tejano/Latino Musical Extravaganza, showcasing the city’s
Mexican-American heritage. The event will feature local Tejano music and
include dancing, food vendors, a beer tent, car show, informational
booths and other vendors.
The event is also a fundraiser for
raising a gateway to mark the recently named César Chávez Plaza at the
corner of Turner Street and César E. Chávez/Grand River Avenue. City
Council voted for the honorary naming of Grand River Avenue and the
plaza a year ago, and the Lansing for Chavez group wants to erect an
entranceway to the popular festival site to remind people that it’s more
than a parking lot.
But it’s about more than honoring Chavez, Guerrero said: It’s about using his legacy to help others.
“It inspires young people, whether you’re
Mexican or not, a farm worker or not, to have an impact in a community.
Whatever you do in your neighborhood can have ripple effects.”
Chávez, who spent his life traveling the
country promoting civil and labor rights, made a lasting impression in
Lansing. Guerrero came to Lansing from Illinois in the early 1970s to
work with Mexican-Americans to develop community radio programming. He
met Chávez when he came to town to promote a lettuce boycott and farm
worker conditions in California.
“César kept close relationships with
Michigan,” Guerrero said. “Michigan, at one time early in the last
century, had the second highest demand of migrant labor, next to
Ten years later, Guerrero, who had moved
to California, got the call asking if he’d help Chávez develop his newly
founded KUFW radio station in the Bay Area. Chávez wanted to use the
station to educate people on the issues, so they would fight for
“The story goes that years before the
radio station went on the air, he would negotiate labor contracts on a
regular basis, and the contracts said farm workers were allowed to bring
transistor radios to the fields attached to their belts,” Guerrero
“Farmers looked at that clause and said,
‘We have nothing wrong with that. If they listen to music, the happier
they will be and faster they will work.’ Little did they know, he would
be starting a radio station and talking to them in the field. That’s
Elva Reyes was born and raised in Lansing. He spent his childhood summers in local onion fields with his parents.
“I’ve been out all day in the hot sun.
You go out in the fields from the beginning of the day till 6 or 7
(p.m.),” he said. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I got out early.”
Reyes first learned of Chávez and his
message when he was 12. “I was at an age where I thought, ‘I can be a
punk, or I can be a person who has goals,’” Reyes said. “Listening to
him, I wanted to do something for myself and for the community, and I’ve
tried to do something.”
Inspired by Chávez’ message of nonviolent
empowerment and community organization, Reyes, who worked for General
Motors as an adult, became active in the Michigan Coalition of Concerned
Hispanics and the Michigan Commission of Spanish Speaking Affairs.
During Gov.James Blanchard’s administration, he invited Chávez to come
and march from Michigan State University to the Capitol.
“Everyone wanted to be there,” Reyes said. “Everybody wanted his picture with him. He was a pretty gentle man. He didn’t speak loud, he just spoke. When he talked he had a way of getting you to listen.”
Tejano/Latino Music Festival
Saturday, Sept. 10
César Chávez Plaza
Turner Street and Grand River Avenue, Lansing
Free admission; $5 cover for beer tent admission