With the stroke of a brush artist Emigdio Vasquez, Sr. captured vibrant characteristics of zoot suits, working conditions and historical figures reflecting the Chicano community in Orange County. Painting murals since the early 1970s, Vasquez became known as the Godfather of Chicano Art with work primarily found in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Fullerton and Irvine.  

Honoring Cesar Chavez

In 2014, President Barack Obama declared March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day.  

In endorsing the idea of creating a national holiday in 2008 to honor Chavez, Obama said: “Chavez 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 Cesar Chavez 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. That’s why I support the call to make Cesar Chavez’s birthday a national holiday. It’s time to recognize the contributions of this American icon to the ongoing efforts to perfect our union.”

In further recognition of the civil rights activist, President Joe Biden has a bust of Chavez prominently displayed in the Oval Office alongside busts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Closings

To commemorate the day, these services will be closed: Department of Motor Vehicles offices, state offices, courts and state college campuses.

Of the more than 30 public murals Vasquez painted in Orange County, “The Legacy of Cesar Chavez” mural at Santa Ana College, in the Cesar Chavez Business and Computer Center,  is one of Vasquez’s favorite murals according to Vasquez’s son Emigdio “Higgy” Vasquez. 

“As a tribute to Cesar Chavez, I wanted to paint a heroic and poignant mural that would celebrate his life,” Emigdio Vasquez Sr. said to the website BrownPride.com about the mural. “I decided to include anonymous images of people from the working class, the people loved by Cesar Chavez.”

Vasquez added, “He adhered to the ideal that working people are not beasts of burden, but are human beings deserving of respect, dignity, and social justice.”

Chavez was a labor activist in the 1960s who focused his energy on farm laborers. Farmworkers received unlivable wages while also working under inhumane working conditions. 

“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves,” Chavez once said. The quote has become one of his signature statements regarding the labor movement.

Chavez was committed to using nonviolent acts of resistance that were used by other civil rights activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He spearheaded strikes, boycotts, marches and fasts for what Chavez called, La Causa (translated in English to “the cause”), according to NPR

“We are convinced that non-violence is more powerful than violence. We are convinced that non-violence supports you if you have a just and moral cause…If you use violence, you have to sell part of yourself for that violence. Then you are no longer a master of your own struggle,” Chavez said to Gerald Barr of The Observer in May 1970.

“The Legacy of Cesar Chavez”

Higgy recalls working with his father to complete “The Legacy of Cesar Chavez” mural, noting it took them about three months to finish. The mural is smaller than some of his father’s 60-foot-long murals, but due to it being an interior mural it’s protected from the rain, sun and wind. 

“‘The Legacy of Cesar Chavez’ is one of my father’s favorite murals. He put tremendous detail in the mural,” Higgy said. “With two of us painting, the project moved forward faster. I was always amazed at his ability and how much faster he painted than I did.”

In the eighth grade, Chavez was forced to drop out of school so he could help bring in income for his family. Chavez experienced the struggles of poverty and the farmworking life firsthand as he began working in the fields full time. By 1965, farmworkers made around 40 cents an hour, according to NPR. 

Much like Chavez was loved by the common man due to his own struggles shared with the community, Emigdio Vasquez was also enamored by those around him as he painted the faces of community members in his murals to reflect the communities in which the murals reside. 

“Cesar Chavez was one of my father’s heroes,” Higgy said. “To my knowledge, my father never met Cesar Chavez. However, we did meet the son of Cesar at the Santa Ana College mural dedication. He came to the unveiling of the mural and was delighted.” 

Honoring Farm Workers

For the mural, Vasquez referred to a book called “Huelga: The First Hundred Days of the Great Delano Grape Strike” by Eugene Nelson. It was filled with beautiful pictures and photographs, helping Vasquez capture great detail and accuracy within his mural, Higgy said about his father. 

“As his personal style was detailed and colorful, he would continually improve images by adding more detail and contrasts. He loved bright colors and would assign a color to black and white images,” Higgy said. 

In September 1965, the National Farm Workers Association (a farmworkers union Chavez formed in 1962) worked alongside the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (a Filipino American labor group), where Chavez and Dolores Huerta called for a strike against grape growers. 

The following year, Chavez led strikers to march 340 miles from Delano to Sacramento to spread awareness of La Causa. In 1967, Chavez also called for a nationwide boycott of California grapes that drew widespread attention and support due to the 340-mile march. 

In 1966, the National Farm Workers Association and Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee merged into what is known today as the United Farm Workers of America

The strike lasted until 1970, when their efforts culminated in victory. Instead of small negotiations, the United Farm Workers union was able to make an agreement with major grape growers to increase pay and the right to unionize. 

Chavez went on to continue leading the union as he organized more hunger strikes, marches and boycotts against lettuce growers and pesticide poisoning of the workers and their children, according to NPR. 

At the end of a hunger strike in 1968, which he took on to rededicate his movement to nonviolence during the Delano grape workers boycott, a mass was held and attended by Robert Kennedy. Even though he was too weak to speak, a statement from him was read to those gathered. “Our struggle is not easy. Those who oppose our cause are rich and powerful and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons.”

Kristina Garcia is a writing fellow for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at kristinamgarcia6@gmail.com.

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