Farmworker Rogelio Lona Honored in Cesar Chavez's Memory

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By Marcelino Quiñónez

Washington, DC – Today the White House honors farmworker and activist Rogelio Lona as one of ten leaders being recognized as Champions of Change who, like Cesar Chavez, have dedicated their lives to improving their community and the nation. The Champions of Change program was created as a part of President Obama’s Winning the Future initiative. Each week, a different sector is highlighted and groups of Champions, ranging from educators to entrepreneurs to community leaders, are recognized for the work they are doing to serve and strengthen their communities. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and actress America Ferrera, who's one of the faces of Voto Latino's 2012 campaign and will be playing Helen F. Chavez in the upcoming biopic about the life of Cesar Chavez, will be at the event. One of our nation’s greatest civil rights leaders, Cesar Estrada Chavez, came of age as a migrant farm worker witnessing the injustices that pervaded fields and vineyards across California. Yet amidst hardship and abuse, Chavez saw the promise of change—the unlimited potential of a community organized around a common purpose. Lona is a farmworker, activist, and community organizer who has worked in the fields of California for more than 47 years. For 32 of those years he has been a member of the United Farm Workers.  

As Shakespeare’s Richard III famously said, “Now is the winter of our discontent
. Made glorious summer by this sun of Yuma, Arizona.” This Saturday, March 31 would have been Cesar Chavez’s 85h birthday. He was born under the sun in Yuma, Arizona and he certainly made many cold winters turn into glorious summers for the farmworkers in California. His tireless commitment to la causa earned him much respect after his death in 1993. Countless schools, libraries and parks in the southwest are named after him. Having served in the Navy, they named a vessel after him. His wife, Helen Chavez, accepted the Medal of Freedom for him from President Clinton in 1994 and the United States Postal Service honored him by releasing a stamp with his imagine in 2002. For years people in the Latino community have wondered who the next Cesar Chavez would be? Who would take the throne as the leader of the people?

Cesar never earned more than $5,000 a year in his lifetime. He completed the 8th grade and was then forced to become a migrant worker in California. He was a personal friend of "Zoot Suit" playwright and La Bamba film writer Luis Valdez. In 1962, he and partner-in-the-struggle Dolores Huerta founded the United Farm Workers, and at one point had over 50,000 paid union members. He lead marches, boycotts and fasted for 25 days to raise awareness about the campesinos he worked alongside. He was a champion of nonviolence, and for anyone who wants to learn and get down, listen to Los Tigres del Norte’s song “Cesar Chavez.” It will send chills down your spine and rhythm down your legs. 

What are we supposed to learn from this life? He was a poor and uneducated man who was rich in wisdom and love. After being forced to work in the fields, he became aware of his people’s plight and did what he could to improve their situation with his invaluable tools: his body and communication skills. He didn't complain or look for pity. He took action and with his movement, shifted the way people who were like him were treated. He was, first and foremost, a farmworker and worked for the farmworkers. This is the lesson we can all learn from Chavez's life: he was selfless.

The truth is, we now live in a world where too many people are vying to be the next Cesar Chavez. There are too many leaders and not enough people to follow or listen to the instructions that could lead to justice for some. In the theatre world, everyone is assigned a role on the first day and unless drastic events happen, a person keeps their role for the entire run. The actor cast as Tybalt cannot say one day, “I feel like playing Romeo today.”  People must play the part they were given. After an actor gets their role, their next task is to learn every detail about their part. The actor must know their character’s background, relationship to others and their objectives and obstacles in the way. Once the homework is done, the playing begins and magic ensues. Cesar was an actor in this manner. He played his part by helping those who worked in the fields.

Cesar’s sincere efforts to remedy the situation he knew best are what turned him into the icon he is today. His efforts came from within. The best way to honor Cesar’s legacy is to look at our own life and learn our part. If you are an engineer, a lawyer, arts director, doctor, police officer or trash picker, what are the dilemmas others like you face? What can you do to help them? In answering those questions we too get closer to turning cold days into warm ones. 

Marcelino Quiñónez is a Phoenix-based artist working on his MFA at Arizona State University and specializing in performance. As program coordinator for the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center, he hosts a First Friday event called The Arts Revolution, which features various performances that highlight the Latino experience in Arizona. Time Magazine discovered him at a “Dancing for a Dream” event in Arizona that led to him appearing on the cover of their “Yo Decido” issue and being interviewed by Fox News, NBC, Univision, Telemundo and NPR.

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