October 9, 1993
By Yolanda Reynolds
Plaza Park in downtown San Jose has been renamed. The new name is plaza de César E. Chavez. It’s new name honors the nationally known labor leader, community organizer and farm worker advocate, Cesar E. Chavez from San Jose. He became a national ﬁgure for organizing farm laborers, first in California, and later in other states with the union he founded, the United Farm Workers in 1968.
The organizing work of the United Farm Workers is still going on. Currently, the UFW is asking Californians and other consumers to boycott grapes. The farm workers and their supporters have concluded that only a boycott will end the use of cancer causing pesticides by farm owners, for growing table grapes.
The unanimous action of the Council to rename such an important site in honor of Chavez, an American of Mexican ancestry, pleased many San Joseans. Many, many people came to speak of the importance of Cesar Chavez, his work and his impact on their lives and the lives of other working people.
Noe Montoya. a San Josean and officer with the San Jose Police Department, said that he was sorry that his son never had the opportunity to meet Cesar Chavez. Montoya explained that it will give him great pride to be able to come to the Park, now named in honor of Cesar Chavez and his work and explain to his son why Cesar’s name is important.
Rudy Medina, a UFW organizer speaking on behalf of the family and the organization, thanked the Mayor and Council. He said that, for Cesar’s colleagues and family, the renaming of the historic Plaza Park, “Plaza de Cesar Chavez,” was indeed an honor – while adding, “knowing Cesar Chavez, what would most make him happy would be that the Mayor and all of the members of Council would join in a boycott march planned for November.”
There was embarrassing silence in the Chamber. The silence ended when others in the Chamber came forward to urge the Council to affirm the proposal to rename the Park. Councilwoman Alvarado said that, for the record, it should be known that, since 1988, the City of San Jose has been on record in support of the grape boycott organized by Cesar Chavez and the UFW.
Few objected to the name change. Among those objecting was Lilyan Brannon, a long-time community advocate, who said that she felt that the Park renaming was not the way to properly honor Cesar Chavez. Brannon again suggested that the City instead consider a “larger site along the Guadalupe River.”
Brannon, a long time homeless advocate and avid community gardener, had early on asked that a space be established along the Guadalupe that would include a community garden, with perhaps a statue of Cesar Chavez. She strongly felt that a garden that would provide food and an opportunity to be involved in gardening would be a more fitting tribute to Cesar Chavez. Brannon was also concerned that early day San Jose history would be forgotten, since Plaza Park is the remaining vestige of early Mexican rule when the Plaza was planned to be the center of El Pueblo dc San Jose de Guadalupe.
Earlier this spring Brannon and her fellow community gardeners in West San Jose renamed their garden in honor of Cesar Chavez.
Brannon, like many, many others, was very concerned that in the very park now renamed to honor Cesar Chavez, a very controversial statue, The Plumed Serpent, would be erected. They felt that placing such a controversial statue at the park would be contrary to all that Cesar Chavez held dear – respect for others.
The “Plumed Serpent” is of Quetzalcoatl, a meso-American god, that is depicted sometimes as a serpent and at others as a stylized male figure adorned with feathers. Quetzalcoatl has at time been depicted and revered as a god to whom human sacrifice was required. At other times, Quetzalcoatl has been depicted and honored as a source of life and goodness. Though Quetzalcoatl is one of the better known gods of meso America there were other gods and deities that were of importance to other indigenous tribes of Mexico. There were also some who felt that the statue is a religious idol and therefore objectionable.
Others strongly objected to the cost of the statue. Mayor Hammer attempted to silence the critics of the proposed serpent statue and announced that a decision had already been made and that the evening’s discussion must be directed to the renaming of the park.
Many speakers were undeterred and found other ways to bring up the issue from different perspectives. They then concluded that the serpent statue was a serious mistake, divisive, and most inappropriate in a park now named for a man who sought peace and respect for all. In particular, for farm laborers who have been and continue to be exploited and abused by others.
Cesar Chavez was a quiet and unassuming man. Esther Medina Gonzales said that the “naming the park in Chavez’s honor was needed not for him but for us.”
Kathy Chavez Napoli a native San Josean who grew up in the same neighborhood and an articulate and frequent critic of the City Council, remarked “Cesar Chavez has been an inspiration to me all of my life. He was a part of my life, since my home was just down the street from his. Knowing of his work inspired me to get an education and gave me the courage to speak up for myself and my community, and to challenge the decisions you make.”
Chavez Napoli led a successful challenge of another statue built to honor an early day but controversial mayor, Thomas Fallon. In that instance, proper procedure for its selection had not been followed and the controversy exposed to the general populace of San Jose the increasingly costly activities of the Council on its behalf. The issue became so embarrassing to the politicians that the statue is still in storage. The statue had been slated to be erected at the north island of Plaza Park.
Art is often controversial, especially but in these very difficult times, when there are so many homeless people, when libraries have been threatened and there is such a list of problems – the concerns and objections of the community cannot easily be ignored.
Sal Caruso, another San Josean, presented to the Council a list of 3,000 names of individuals who signed their names to a petition requesting that the Council not erect the statue of the Plumed Serpent and that the money be spent on community needs.
Indeed, the example of leaders like Cesar Chavez, Mohatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., inspires others to fearlessly express themselves before their elected officials who, at times, need to be reminded of the needs of the less advantaged, the youth, the elderly and the infirm.
Sandy Perry reminded the Council that Cesar Chavez worked tirelessly to bring unity to the community and worked very hard for a part of the labor force that had been ignored by others in the labor movement. He said that it would be a disgrace to Chavez’s memory to spend half of a million dollars for a statue while at the same time saying that there is no money for shelter for the homeless people who currently have no place to sleep. The armory is to be opened up, but not until November. Perry said that it is wrong that homeless people are hunted and treated worse than dogs by the authorities when all that they want is a safe place to sleep and rest.
As the crowd left the Chambers, a woman said that she hoped that the Council would do more than just proclaim its support of the boycott but hoped that they would take definitive action and see to that all of the fancy restaurants that surround Plaza de Cesar Chavez, in particular those that had received a redevelopment subsidy (money) or other city support be required to also boycott grapes and joint city officials themselves join the community in boycotting those restaurants that continue to serve grapes.
Before the unanimous vote of the Council, Councilmember Frank Fiscalini said that he would vote for the proposal he felt that the Council might have explored even better ways to honor the memory of Cesar Chavez. Councilman David Pandori, in whose District the park is located, said that he would be asking that the matter of the Plumed Serpent be “revisited”. His office did not return La Oferta Review’s request for more information on his proposal.
The UFW has scheduled a march and a rally for Sunday, November the 7th. The march will begin at noon at the Chavez family home at Scharff Ave. in the “Sal Si Puedes” neighborhood and end at Plaza de Cesar E. Chavez with a rally. During the week of November 1-7 the UFW is asking all of their supporters to demand that no grapes be served or sold in San Jose. The group has short video tapes available free of charge to persons or groups interested in learning more about the grape boycott and why it is important.
The UFW is asking that the consumer not purchase grapes and that they not patronize those establishments that persist in selling and serving grapes.
For more information on the Grape Boycott and the work of the UFW, contact them at 998-4039. © La Oferta Publication.