ELPASO, Texas — A decision to remove César Chavez Day as an observed school holiday taken by the University of Texas at El Paso Faculty Senate touched a nerve at this Hispanic-majority institution.
“We were under pressure to make a quick decision,” said Faculty Senate President Dr. Carl S. Lieb, a professor of biology. The vote on November 9 by the faculty Catalog and Calendar Committee, followed by a unanimous vote by the senate, was in response to a Texas State Legislature cost-cutting directive to remove two holidays from the school’s schedule.
“The first recommendation to come was to take away the Spring Study Day and Cesar Chavez Day, or (to) take one of the existing staff holidays during the winter break,” Lieb said. Spring Study Day, a faculty holiday on the Friday of Spring Break also was eliminated.
This removal of César Chavez Day sparked controversy within the campus as well as in the community. A number of organizational meetings were held by community groups including Centro Sin Fronteras and by campus organizations such as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlán) and CAUSA (Cultural Artists United for Social Action). Meetings also took place at the Centro de los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos and the Percolator coffee shop downtown.
All the planning led to the Restore Cesar Chavez Rally at UTEP on January 27. Held on a Thursday to insure a strong student presence on campus, the rally featured community speakers and members of the groups that helped organize it. A petition to reinstate the holiday was circulated. The rally culminated with Pete Duarte, an accomplished UTEP alumnus declaring that he would give back his Gold Nugget Award, the university’s most prestigious award for alumni.
Duarte, former director of Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe and CEO (or, Chief Servant as he prefers to be called) at Thomason Hospital, had strong critical comments for the Faculty Senate and the university administration: “The action taken by the faculty senate is not only a slap in the face to the students, faculty and staff on campus, but it is an act of cultural and racial genocide against the majority population of the area,” he said.
Duarte said that the university’s decision to cancel the César Chavez Holiday was wrong. “I regret this action because it is a significant step backward for a university ostensibly trying to reach tier one status… I, for one, will no longer support the university financially, and I ask that my friends do the same thing. I am also returning the Gold Nugget Award I received in 2004 as a clear show of disgust at this action.”
Local lawyer Enrique Moreno told the crowd, “If César were among us, he would not talk to us about a holiday… He would talk to us about a people, a culture, a struggle. And that’s why we raise our voices today.
“The disrespect is not for César Chavez. The disrespect is to the community, the culture, the struggle. If we permit that to happen, it does not just say something about this university, it says something about us,” Moreno said.
MEChA member Madelein Santibanez said at the rally that UTEP had “decided to go behind students’ backs” and remove the holiday from the calendar.
“A group of eight faculty members made a decision that affected the entire university without consulting us and they expect us to remain complacent,” she said. “The university regularly disregards us, and since we never speak out, they think they can easily get away with anything.”
Ironically, the Catalog and Calendar Committee was originally responsible for establishing César Chavez Day at UTEP back in 1999 when it was — as it is today — an optional state holiday. Lieb recalled that, “we thought, at the time, that the state legislature was going to make César Chavez Day an official holiday. And then it didn’t happen. But we went ahead and did it anyway.”
The rally ended with a march to UTEP President Diana Natalicio’s office to witness Duarte personally return the Gold Nugget award to UTEP.
President Natalicio greeted the group shaking every hand in the room. She even had a hug in store for Duarte when she got around to him.
“As you well know, I was here during the 70’s during the Chicano movement teaching Chicano Studies classes,” Duarte told Natalicio. “And César Chavez was always very much a part of my curriculum and he continues to be my personal hero. I think he emulates everything that was good in America as far as moral character… And I return my Gold Nugget Award that was awarded to me in 2004.”
Natalicio told the group that she was working to resolve the issue. “The intention of the Faculty Senate was not to, in any way, show disrespect for César Chavez…,” she said. “We’re working on a solution that would allow us to be able to commemorate César Chavez Day and maintain the required number of class days for the semester, which critical for accreditation of all the academic programs.”
A meeting between Natalicio and Duarte was scheduled for a later time to discuss other potential changes to the academic calendar as well as to surrender the award. The Gold Nugget was never given back that day.
“There is no winner here, but I’m determined to find some kind of good out of this,” said Lieb, echoing President Natalicio’s optimism.
“[The cancellation] frustrates me and angers me,” says Saray Argumedo, a senior at UTEP and a member of CAUSA. “But, in a way, it’s good. Just so we could move students and address other issues also. Not only this issue. This is just the beginning.”