Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter
Once again California, first in freeways and orange groves, leads the nation -- this time in honoring the life of the country's foremost Hispanic civil rights leader with a state holiday.
State employees will get a paid day off this year, on Friday, March 30, in honor of Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers union. Legislation creating a holiday on the Monday or Friday nearest his March 31 birthday was approved by the California legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis last summer.
"When children learn about the great life of Martin Luther King, Jr., they will also learn about the great life of Cesar Chavez," said Davis when he signed the California legislation on Aug. 18, 2000. "With an unconquerable spirit and undeniable cause, Chavez led a labor movement which set into motion such powerful, sweeping changes that the impact is still being felt today."
The law creates what is described as the nation's first paid state holiday honoring a Latino or a labor union figure. Texas and Arizona offer an optional holiday in honor of Chavez. New Mexico is considering establishing the last Saturday of March as "Cesar Chavez Day." Legislation is under consideration in Colorado and Wisconsin as well.
As Davis penned the bill into law, supporters sang "De Colores," the upbeat and melodic UFW rallying song.
Previous California law let state workers take the day off as "Cesar Chavez Day," but they had to use personal holiday time to get paid.
According to new state guidelines, California schools will have the option of commemorating Chavez with a "Day of Service and Learning." At participating schools, a state-funded curriculum will be used in the morning to teach students about Chavez and the history of the farm labor movement in the United States. In the afternoon, students will perform community service.
"We wanted to be able to provide young people knowledge about Cesar Chavez, who he was, what his philosophy was, but also a way to practice it," said United Farm Workers president, Arturo Rodriguez, who pushed for the educational component as a way to keep the Chavez legacy alive.
After much debate, California Democrats unanimously supported the legislation, which was initiated by Sen. Richard Polanco, a Los Angeles Democrat. Many Republicans, primarily from the Central Valley where Chavez is still a controversial figure, voted against it or didn't vote at all. …