Activist Cesar Chavez's legacy unites two area organizations | St. Louis Public Radio

Activist Cesar Chavez's legacy unites two area organizations

Nov 12, 2015

Two area organizations are looking to further their missions by honoring the legacy of Cesar Chavez, even though the labor organizer and Latino rights activist only briefly visited the state. 

The Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates Coalition (MIRA) is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a series of events that look to explain how the organization fits within the history of immigration rights reform. This weekend the organization helps launch an exhibit focused on Chavez facilitated by the Hispanic Arts Council at the St. Louis Public Library .  

“When we look to the example of Cesear Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) and what people are able to accomplish when they work together, I think there’s a lot of relevance to what is happening now,” said the coalition’s Executive Director Vanessa Crawford Aragón.

The exhibit titled In His Own Words: The Life and Work of César Chávez pairs photographs of Chavez and his advocacy work with excerpts from his speeches, writing and interviews. MIRA formed in 2006 when members of immigration rights groups throughout the state realized there were several bills targeting immigration issues in the Missouri General Assembly.  

More than 40 groups led by The Immigrant Rights Action Task Force banded together and formed MIRA to address those bills and future legislation aimed at addressing unfair immigration policy. Currently the organization is gearing up to address issues like tuition hikes that affect immigrant students and housing discrimination issues. But before the legislative session gets underway the organization is celebrating its accomplishments while looking to past movement leaders like Chavez.

“Chavez was a really amazing leader in organizing and empowering immigrant workers to stand up for themselves, and he’s an example that continues to be followed in the immigrant communities. So this is a really good way to talk about collective action,” said Aragon.

The Chavez exhibit is produced in partnership with the library, which is three months into a year-long initiative to cultivate St. Louis’s Latino audience. 

“We know there are Latinos in Missouri and in St. Louis, and we’re not seeing them in the library like we’d like to,” said Katie LaBarbera who serves on the library’s Hispanic Outreach Committee.

The library’s initiative includes reaching out to churches such as St. Cecilia that have many Latinos in their congregations, cultivating relationships with Latino organizations and storytelling initiatives with Storycorps. It’s funded by a Missouri Latinos grant with support from the Missouri Humanities Council. LaBarbera said the Chavez exhibit fits perfectly with this initiative while addressing larger issues in the St. Louis region.

LaBarbera says Chavez used symbols and tactics of the civil rights movement and this is represented in the exhibit.

“It speaks more to a struggle in general for better wages, for better working conditions, for better, just rights and to eliminate racism,” she said.

Workers' rights and immigration movement photographer Dan Bacon worked with the Farm Workers Union before becoming a documentarian. Missouri Humanities Council and MIRA helped bring him to St. Louis to host the exhibit’s opening Thursday evening. The free exhibit runs through Dec. 12. and can be found in the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Branch Carnegie Room.