César Chávez: The Story Behind the Statue
By Christine Vaughan
Twenty years ago, CSUSM unveiled its first outdoor public art – a bronze statue of civil rights activist César Chávez. At the time, the north-facing statue seemed far from the four university buildings on the southwest side of campus, but as history would prove, the César Chávez statue would not only reflect the heart of CSUSM, it would one day become the center of campus.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the statue and honor the life and legacy of César Chávez, a weeklong celebration is planned, featuring guest lectures, a one-act show, panel discussions, a signature evening event, and a day of service.
A Man of the People
A social activist and humanitarian, César Chávez is revered as one of the greatest heroic figures of the civil rights movement. During the 1960s and '70s, he was a leading voice for migrant farm workers as the founder of the first successful farm workers’ union in U.S. history. His efforts gained international attention as he led organized boycotts, strikes and peaceful protest marches in order to make lawmakers and employers grant higher wages, improve living conditions and make education more accessible to migrant workers. A year after his death, in 1994, Chávez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, by President Bill Clinton.
First Came the Plaza
Shortly after his death, a large group of passionate students and faculty at CSUSM petitioned to rename Academic Hall in honor of Chávez. But their plans hit an unexpected roadblock. San Francisco State had beat them to it. Under CSU policy, only one building in the CSU system can bear a specific name. Determined to honor Chávez, CSUSM proposed naming an outdoor space that would be reflective of Chávez’s approach to open community gatherings.
As plans moved forward to name the César E. Chávez Plaza (often shortened to Chávez Plaza), Political Science Professor Dr. Cynthia Chávez Metoyer and Catalog and Curriculum Coordinator Lourdes Shahamiri led efforts as part of the CSUSM Hispanic Advisory Council to consider ways to honor the late civil rights leader.
They considered a bench, a fountain and a tile wall. And then, Shahamiri suggested a statue.
“He is a symbol of perseverance for creating social change,” said Shahamiri. “I strongly believed then – as I still do today – that future students, regardless of race, color or belief, could relate to the work of César Chávez by persisting in their goals of obtaining an education.”
Simple, Yet Powerful
With a tight timeline and an even tighter budget of $25,000 funded entirely through private support, Chávez Metoyer and Shahamiri set out to commission the University’s first outdoor public art. They knew they needed find an artist who would take on the project both for the love of art and for the opportunity to honor the great leader (similar art pieces at the time cost nearly three times their budget).
Six proposals were submitted. Some were abstract while others depicted Chávez as larger than life. The campus community voted and it was the vision of Leucadia-based bronze sculptors TJ Dixon and James Nelson that won the hearts of voters.
“César Chávez was a simple, yet powerful man, thus a tribute to him must be simple, yet powerful,” wrote Dixon and Nelson in their proposal. Suggesting Chávez be positioned that the top of the grand staircase on the edge of the plaza, they felt “he would stand as a powerful figure, proud, persistent, dignified, gentle, yet immovable. The stairs would become a metaphor for the hard climb in the struggle for social change and social justice.”
The artists proposed the statement – one that would later carry so much significance to CSUSM – in bronze lettering summing up César Chávez’s own powerful maxim: Sí Se Puede. It Can Be Done.
A second quote from Chávez accompanies the statue on a smaller plaque five stairs down. It states: “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read, humiliate the person who feels pride, and you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”
The Truth is in the Details
It was important to the artists and to the committee that César Chávez not be portrayed as larger than life and towering over others, like many statues; although technically, the statue is not exactly to scale. Chávez was two inches shorter than the statue at 5-foot-6.
“He was a man of the people,” said Shahamiri. “He was humble and we wanted to show the real César.”
So CSUSM enlisted the help of the Chávez family, which provided photographs, films and insights. It was the first time that the family had been consulted in the creation of a commemorative work honoring Chávez. The result was something unlike any other.
The original proposal by the artists showed Chávez with his arms crossed in a sort of power stance. Although Chávez only had an eighth-grade education, he was an avid reader and advocate for education. The family suggested he carry a book and stand in a more relaxed pose with his arms at his side.
The family also requested that the statue reflect Chávez in his older years, since they remembered him more in his role as “tata,” and that he wear a sweater rather than a button-up shirt.
This Day 20 Years Ago
On March 31, 1997 – on what would have been Chávez’s 70th birthday – CSUSM unveiled the naming of the plaza and statue honoring César Chávez at a special ceremony. Chávez’s granddaughter, Cynthia Chávez Ybarra, who was in eighth grade, delivered a touching tribute.
The celebration received national attention from the White House.
“Your tribute honors an individual whose legacy continues to inspire a generation,” said Vice President Al Gore in a statement to CSUSM. “We must continue to work to ensure that the issues in which he believed, such as excellence in education, remain top priorities.”
A Deep Sense of Pride
It is not uncommon to see a graduate in cap and gown posing for pictures with the Chávez statue. Or to see a student rubbing the book for good luck on their way to an exam (legend says you’ll get an A if you do). “Sí Se Puede” is even in the chants sung at athletic games. But the connection goes deeper.
“ ‘Sí, Se Puede. It Can Be Done,' not only reflects César Chávez’s personal belief that human beings can prevail against all odds, but the words echo who we are as a University and the resilient spirit of our students,” said President Karen Haynes. “The César Chávez statue is a meaningful landmark on our campus and in our community—we are proud that CSUSM is its home.”
Eight states, including California, recognize March 31 as César Chávez Day, a state holiday (and Chavez’s birthday) that is observed by closing state offices and schools, including all CSU and UC campuses.
In remembrance, CSUSM hosts the César Chávez Day of Service on March 31. This year, teams of students will volunteer at 10 sites throughout the community and complete painting projects, habitat restoration, gardening, and the cleaning of a theater warehouse.
For more information about the weeklong celebration, visit: Remembering César Chávez