Opinion: When I chose Cesar Chavez as my American hero, my teacher said he wasn’t American

Opinion: When I chose Cesar Chavez as my American hero, my teacher said he wasn’t American

Anaya is co-founder of the San Diego County Cesar E. Chavez Commemorative Committee and is the senior director of binational affairs and community relations for Southwest Strategies. He lives in Chula Vista.

I can still smell the rancid coffee from the morning when I walked into the classroom that first day of school in 1994 and met Ms. Dullard, who was requesting the homework she had assigned over the summer. Not having been in her honors English class the previous year, I was unaware of that homework. A great way for a 16-year-old to start the first day of school.

In the weeks that followed while sitting in class at Chula Vista High School, Ms. Dullard began to drill us on essay writing but meticulously kept the topic of our major class project a secret. Finally, she revealed the topic was a research term paper on an American hero of our choosing.

I realized at the time that my heroes were not Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, but my hardworking parents. Yet no one had written anything about them, so how could I? There were no books about their sacrifices. No stories about how they had left their families in Mexicali, Mexico, and moved to San Diego in search of opportunity, about how my father worked two jobs as a dishwasher and janitor or how my mother had picked up small side jobs as a seamstress, sewing into the early morning hours just so we could pay rent and eat.

As I began reading my history book, the bolded word “HUELGA!” caught my eye. Next to it was a picture of a black eagle and a photo of a dark-skinned, white-haired man of gentle warmth. As I read the half-page biography of Cesar E. Chavez, I knew I had found my hero — someone who represented all that my parents had gone through. All I had to do then was write my first college-level term paper, footnotes and all. Cesar Chavez had passed away only a few months before, and at the time, much of what was available was limited to news and magazine articles. There was no internet. It was microfiche at the library.

Although Ms. Dullard assumed that everyone owned a computer, my father had to buy me a typewriter at a swap meet. The Sunday before my paper was due, I worked into the early morning to add my final touches to it. I rested my eyes and then woke up to the smell of my parents’ cinnamon-infused coffee. I bolted upright, and saw my typewriter in the corner, the papers stacked neatly on top.

Two people stand in front of a billboard announcing the USNS Cesar Chavez.

(Pedro Anaya at the unveiling of the USNS Cesar Chavez.)

Paper in hand, head high, I entered the class, and saw that the other students’ essays were bound in pretty covers, not by a single staple like mine. Weeks passed and eventually, Ms. Dullard carried in a plastic milk crate with our papers. One by one she reached in and pulled out a paper, announcing the writer’s first name, with a smile and a remark on the quality of the paper. Toward the bottom of the box, she started using last names, quit smiling and avoided making eye contact. My paper was at the bottom of the pile.

“Anaya,” she called.

I grabbed my paper but did not look at it until I was back in my seat. I was expecting to see some corrections on it, but I was stunned. Her red ink had blended with coffee stains and completely saturated the top of my essay. Next to the stain, she had written, “Please see me,” but no grade.

As I started moving back towards her desk, every student looked at me. Silently, I handed her my paper. Standing and looking down on me, she pointed out how inherently flawed my paper was, including that I did not use a computer. Pausing and taking a sip of coffee, she said, “You obviously misunderstood the assignment. I specifically asked you to write on an American hero, not a Mexican hero.”

I thought, did she miss the part in my paper where Cesar Chavez had served this country’s military — joining the Navy at age 17 in 1944 during World War II and serving for two years — and lived and worked to empower people in the U.S.?

I could feel the other students watching me as I tried to hide my eyes tearing up with anger. All I could think of was my grandmother’s suffering as she worked in the lettuce fields in Calexico. I left my paper on her desk, avoided the eyes of the students, and returned to my seat, heart racing, ears ringing, a fire of rage kindled in my veins.

Years later, in 1999, at the San Diego Convention Center, local leaders gathered at the annual Cesar E. Chavez Community Breakfast, presented by the San Diego County Cesar E. Chavez Commemorative Committee. There, I listened to a young man read his essay about Chavez. My hidden fear was that the audience would react as Ms. Dullard had reacted toward me. I was wrong. The audience gave him a standing ovation, moving the student to such emotion that he left the stage in tears.

The following year, I witnessed the governor of California sign into law the Cesar Chavez Day of Service and Learning on March 31, proclaiming Cesar an American hero. Twelve years later, in 2012, I had the honor and privilege to escort Cesar Chavez’s widow as the U.S. Navy launched into service the USNS Cesar Chavez.

I never met Cesar Chavez. But 29 years after his passing, his life, values and legacy continue to inspire me and countless of others to honor his sacrifice through service. In Cesar Chavez, we can see the potential of who we can be — and how, as ordinary people, we can do extraordinary things for ourselves, our families and our communities.

¡Que viva César Chávez!

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