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Cesar Chávez an inspiration to president's campaign slogan and movements

By Cindy Y. Rodriguez, CNN
updated 12:11 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Cesar Chavez was posthumously given a Medal of Freedom a year after he died by President Bill Clinton.
Cesar Chavez was posthumously given a Medal of Freedom a year after he died by President Bill Clinton.

(CNN) -- "¡Si se puede!"

Many people may not realize that the origin of "Yes We Can!" President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign slogan, was a direct translation of rallying cries of the farm workers movement led by César E. Chávez, founder of the United Farm Workers, an organization devoted to defending the rights of farmhands and field workers across the country.

Chavez fought for fair wages, humane treatment and safer working conditions for California's farm workers through nonviolent marches, boycotts and fasts.

The UFW motto has been widely adopted by labor unions and civil rights movements, like the Service Employees International Union Justice For Janitors program, and immigration reform protests in 2006.

The slogan was coined during Chavez's 24-day fast in 1972 for social justice in Phoenix, with the help of Dolores Huerta, co-founder of UFW.

In the 1972 film"¡Si se puede!", filmmakers Rick Tejada-Flores and Gayanne Fietinghoff document the fast that inspired the phrase. In May 1972, the Arizona Legislature passed a bill that limited collective bargaining and outlawed boycotts and strikes at harvest time.

After Gov. Jack Williams signed the bill into law, Chavez began a fast. According to the film's site, supporters discouraged the fast, arguing with him:"Cesar, no se puede, no se puede." Chavez would reply. "Si, si se puede." Yes, it can be done.

On Monday, President Obama traveled to Keene, California, to announce the César E. Chávez National Monument. The 120-acre site is Chavez's former home and workplace from the early 1970s until his death in 1993. It includes his grave site and national headquarters of the United Farm Workers.

The Mexican-American farm worker, labor organizer and civil rights activist will be the first Latino honored since the 1700s. The event is seen as an effort to court Latino voters, with Election day just weeks away.

Earlier this year, President Obama decreed March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day. The White House honored and invited 11 local leaders, activists, farm workers and professors who exemplified Cesar Chavez's core values to speak at a panel called "Champions of Change" for the 85th anniversary of the civil rights leader's birthday. While not a federal holiday, grass-roots organizations continue to advocate March 31 as a national holiday.

In 2008, then-Sen. Obama made a call for a national holiday in Chávez's honor. "Chávez left a legacy as an educator, environmentalist and a civil rights leader. And his cause lives on. As farm workers and laborers across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages, we find strength in what César Chávez accomplished so many years ago. And we should honor him for what he's taught us about making America a stronger, more just and more prosperous nation, "

Ten states mark his birthday with a holiday. More than 40 schools, buildings and parks across the nation bear his name, along with street signs across the country.

Also, after years of the family turning down Hollywood's offers to make a film about Chavez's life, a biopic is on the way. Mexican-American actor Michael Pena, who appeared in "Babel," will be playing the lead role. He will be joined by award-winning actresses America Ferrera and Rosario Dawson and directed by Diego Luna. No release date has been set.

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