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Berkeley Students Celebrate Cesar Chavez’s 80th Birthday

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday April 03, 2007

Strawberries marked Cesar Chavez’s 80th birthday at Malcolm X Elementary School Friday.  

Students watered week-old strawberry seedlings in the school garden and planted new ones, all the while telling each other stories about the famous Mexican American civil rights activist who had fought for the rights of strawberry farmers and farm laborers. 

“We have been doing this since the garden broke ground in 2000,” said Rivka Mason, who has been teaching gardening to Malcolm X students for the last thirteen years. 

“We get a lot of holidays in the Berkeley schools. I am not saying that we shouldn’t get a day off on Cesar Chavez Day, but I wonder how many people will actually do anything at home to remember him. I think it’s more important to have a service learning program instead.” 

Rivka said that planting strawberries taught the kids about what a back-breaking process strawberry harvesting actually was. 

“The Mexicans named it La Fruita Del Diablo, or ‘the Fruit of the Devil’ because of how low they had to stoop to pick it. This little exercise teaches the children self-reliance and self-respect. It teaches them to nurture Mother Earth and to take care of each other.” 

Schools all over the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) remained open on Friday to celebrate Cesar Chavez Day. 

While Rosa Parks Elementary School held a special assembly, Thousand Oaks brought in Latino community leaders to give talks. Students also drew murals representing peace and justice themes and created flags resembling those of the United Farm Workers, the labor union co-founded by Chavez.  

Members of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action & Integration And Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) had picketed the school board on March 14, demanding that Berkeley schools remain closed on Cesar Chavez Day. 

In an interview with the Planet in March, Eyvette Felarca, West Coast co-ordinator for BAMN, said that they would urge school students to boycott school on March 30 to honor Cesar Chavez.  

“BUSD honors Martin Luther King’s and Malcolm X’s birthdays along with all the other national holidays. But it does not honor the Cesar Chavez holiday, which is state law in California,” she said. 

Currently Oakland Unified and San Francisco Unified are closed for Cesar Chavez Day.  

BUSD spokesperson Mark Coplan told the Planet that no student from the Berkeley public schools had boycotted school Friday. 

“This is an effort by BAMN to use our students and the kids have realized that,” he said. “They asked the kids at Berkeley High to walk out but no one did. Instead the Barbecue Club at BHS came together with the La Raza Student Union to make fajitas.” 

Coplan added that asking high schoolers to walk out of school was dangerous. “There’s a real concern about student safety when that happens,” he said. 

“Besides, schools are not places that harbor racism, they are places where kids learn to stand up for their rights.” 

Rio Bauce, chair of the Berkeley Youth Commission and a Berkeley High student (and Daily Planet contributor), said that it is important to celebrate Cesar Chavez Day. 

“I think it’s a good idea to teach kids about him,” he said. “At the same time, since we honor Malcolm X and Martin Luther King by keeping our schools closed, we should do the same for Cesar Chavez.” 

However, Malcolm X fourth-grader Helena Noriega said she wanted to come to school on Cesar Chavez Day. 

“It’s possible to learn a little more about Cesar Chavez when you are at school,” Helena said. 

“Since he worked on a farm, I like being surrounded by fruits and vegetables in a garden on his birthday.” 

Ten-year-old Laila Aldabashi, who was helping her water the strawberry patch, nodded in agreement. 

“I want to learn a lot more about him, especially about where he came from,” she piped in. 

As Mason helped the first graders to plant strawberry seedlings in recycled milk cartons, tiny hands shot up to answer questions about Cesar Chavez. 

“I know he went to thirty schools,” offered Ronnie Tolliver, a first-grader. “He made farmers’ lives better,” said his friend Roan. 

Kai Shen, first-grade teacher at Malcolm X, said that state curriculum made it mandatory to teach school children about Cesar Chavez. 

“I read out a story on the life of Cesar Chavez to the kids today and they play acted scenes from it,” she said. 

“I think it’s important that his name is remembered by future generations. He deserves a day that is a holiday in its own right, but I wouldn’t really put that in place of what we are doing in class now. They were groaning and moaning about how hot it is today. Now they know what farm workers face when they pick strawberries and grapes in the sun all day.” 


Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee 

First-graders at Malcolm X Elementary School learn how to plant strawberry seedlings in their school garden on Cesar Chavez Day.