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Why are we still naming things for Cesar Chavez?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
  • Ruben Navarrette asks why we are still naming things after labor leader who died 20 years ago
  • He says people see Chavez as signifier of respect for or pride in Hispanic communities
  • But he says this also brings conflict; naming battles become proxy for assimilation tensions
  • Navarrette: It's silly to name things for Chavez to honor past and to fight renaming out of fear

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.COM contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- I have to ask: Why are we still naming things for Cesar Chavez?

The iconic labor leader and founder of the United Farm Workers union died in 1993. And since then, dozens of streets, parks, schools, libraries and community centers around the country have been named after him.

Just last month, a Navy cargo ship was named for Chavez in recognition of the fact that he served in that branch of the military during World War II. And in San Antonio, a city that is now more than 60% Latino, the city council voted to rename a downtown street in honor of Chavez.

For a time, these kinds of gestures made sense. After a great American passes away, it's expected that there would be calls to honor him or her by naming this, or renaming that, and for this process to go on for several years. It's a sign of respect.

It's also an American tradition. It's one way for groups to assert that they are part of the national tapestry. When it was decided that a New York airport would be named after Fiorello LaGuardia, who served as mayor from 1934 to 1945, it was as much about honoring the city's Italian-American community as it was a former city leader. And when the name of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is attached to a school, library or street, it's often a nod to the local African-American community.

Likewise, naming something for Cesar Chavez has, in many U.S. cities, become a way of honoring Latinos.

My concern isn't with the worthiness of the individual. I'll stipulate that Chavez was a great American who helped bring fairness and dignity to the fields and the workers who toil there. Before Chavez and the union came along, there were no collective bargaining rights for farm workers, no toilets or clean drinking water in the fields, and little public awareness about pesticides and other dangers that workers must endure to put fruits and vegetables on our table. He helped change all that.

My concern is that there is a time for everything, and this campaign to name things for Chavez has been playing out for nearly 20 years. We're not the same country we used to be.

There are now 50.5 million Latinos in the United States. Two-thirds of them are Mexican or Mexican-American, the subgroup that probably most identifies with Chavez. But, in the remaining third, there are Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Salvadorans and others to whom Chavez means nothing.

Besides, you have to wonder: Why is it that Chavez always winds up with these honors? There are plenty of other distinguished Latino Americans -- of various backgrounds -- who have accomplished great things and deserve wide public recognition. They might get it if political leaders focused less on Chavez as a symbol and took a more comprehensive look at the reality of the Latino community.

After all, these efforts to name things after Chavez are rarely about Chavez. The same goes for any groups who are resistant to changing the name of a street or playground or city center to honor him. Most of that resistance isn't about the labor leader.

The larger drama is about changing demographics, ethnic power-plays and the entrenchment of the fearful. It's about where the Latino community fits into the existing power structure -- what they demand, what they are given and what they take. It's the latest chapter of an immigration and assimilation saga that played out with the Germans in Milwaukee, the Irish in Boston, and the Jews in New York. It's about demanding and receiving respect.

I know. I've seen this story up-close. I grew up in Central California, which was ground zero in the historical drama involving Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

I was living back home in Fresno in October 1993 when the city council there narrowly approved a motion to rename a city street in honor of Chavez. A 10-mile stretch of Kings Canyon Road was transformed into Cesar Chavez Boulevard. Then the powerful farm industry -- no fans of Chavez -- and its supporters, had their say. A few weeks later, at a public meeting with brown faces on one side and white faces on the other, the same council rescinded the order.

I was at that meeting, and I was stunned. I couldn't believe how a government body could treat the city's Latino community so shabbily, without fear of reprisal. For me, that was the bigger issue. That was the outrage. Never mind Chavez. The Fresno City Council wasn't being disrespectful to the dead. They were being disrespectful to the living. That is all that mattered.

Now, the same dynamic is playing out in San Antonio, where naming a street for Chavez has become a way for the Latino majority to flex its muscles, and fighting this change is how the Anglo minority tries to hold onto what little power it has left

When the time came to vote on the name change a few weeks ago, the seven Hispanic members of San Antonio City Council all voted in favor, while the two Anglos, the one African-American and the one Asian-American member voted no.

Who still thinks this dust-up is just about a street?

After the vote, the San Antonio Conservation Society, which had opposed the name change all along, refused to give up. With the tenacity of Davy Crockett fighting off Mexican soldiers at the Alamo, the Conservation Society sued to stop the name change out of concern for what a spokesman called "the integrity of our history."

And a state district court judge granted a temporary restraining order against the name change. There's a public hearing planned for Friday where the Conservation Society is planning to ask that the temporary injunction be made permanent. Let's hope the judge decides otherwise.

And let's also hope that, one day, we can put these silly dramas to rest. Ask yourselves: Which is more ridiculous, demanding that something be named for Cesar Chavez because you want to honor the past or resisting because you're terrified of the future?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.