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Public Statements

Tribute to Cesar Chavez

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, today would have been the 77th birthday of one of our country's greatest leaders, Cesar Chavez. His famous motto in life "si se puede," "yes we can" is his legacy to all of us, and we are a better nation because of his life-long struggle to bring dignity and freedom for the working men and women and their families he cared so much about and did so much to help.

Cesar Chavez made powerful contributions to our society and has inspired countless individuals who continue his battle against injustice. My brother Robert Kennedy came to know Cesar Chavez well, and a special friendship grew. Bobby instinctively shared Cesar's extraordinary commitment to migrant farm workers, and his dedication to non-violent change, and he too was inspired by Cesar's passionate conviction. My brother was the only public official who was there in March of 1968, at the end of Cesar's 25-day fast for non-violence to help the grape workers. He was deeply moved by that day and called Cesar "one of the most heroic figures of our time."

Cesar is best known today for his leadership in founding the United Farmworkers of America, the largest farm workers' union in U.S. history. Under his 30 year leadership, it became the strongest and most consistent voice for farm workers' rights. His determination and vision led the fight for fair wages, decent medical coverage, reasonable pension benefits and better living conditions for their workers. His legacy guides us today as we continue the battle to enable today's farm workers to live and work with respect and dignity.

In fact, the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act we hope to enact in this Congress is based on the far-reaching agreement between the UFW and the agriculture industry to treat immigrant farm workers fairly. Large numbers of men and women employed in agriculture are currently undocumented. Often they risk danger and even death to cross our borders only to be exploited by unscrupulous employers who pay inhuman wages under harsh and often dangerous job conditions. Our bill gives these deserving farm workers and their families the opportunity to earn legal status, and it gives agricultural businesses a legal workforce. By passing this bill, we pay tribute to Cesar and we win an important battle in ending injustices in farm work across America.

The legacy of Cesar Chavez also reminds us of the important role of education in helping children with the greatest need to have a better future. We know we can do much more to guarantee equality of opportunity, and fulfill the promise of a good education for millions of children living in poverty, especially for the children of migrant and seasonal farm workers.

Too often, schools attended by migrant families are substandard, and college is an impossible dream. Migrant students are among the most disadvantaged youth in the nation. Current estimates place their school dropout rate between 50 and 60 percent.

Cesar Chavez put it best in his own words:

It is not enough to teach our young people to be successful . . . so they can realize their ambitions, so they can earn good livings, so they can accumulate the material things that this society bestows. Those are worthwhile goals. But it is not enough to progress as individuals while our friends and neighbors are left behind.

Those words remind us of our commitment to provide a better future for today's youth; especially those who live in poverty, work long hours in the fields, and are in the greatest need. They remind us of our commitment stated in law, but far from reality, to leave no child behind. They remind us of our unmet responsibility to achieve equal educational opportunity for all, invest in our nation's communities, and make a difference in the lives of millions of children.

Cesar's famous "Prayer for the Farm Worker's Struggle" sums up the qualities of strength, wisdom and compassion that are essential as we carry on his mission:

Show me the suffering of the most miserable, so I will know my people's plight. Free me to pray for others, for you are in every person.

Help me to take responsibility for my own life, so that I can be free at last.

Give me honesty and patience, so that I can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration, so that the Spirit will live among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow, so that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice, for they have given us life. Help us love those who hate us, so we can change the world.

Happy birthday, Cesar-may your vision continue to guide us now as we seek a better world.

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