Cesar Chavez’s legacy at MSU How the celebrated activist’s influence lives on

September 22, 2020 - Layne Cameron

As traffic flows along Grand River Avenue in Lansing's Old Town, few drivers may observe the name change to Cesar Chavez Avenue. When library patrons at Michigan State University check out a book or grab coffee at the café, they may not notice Chavez's namesake collection and portrait on the first floor.

The visible evidence may be subtle, but it's a reminder of Chavez's strong historic presence and influence at MSU and in mid-Michigan.

Raising awareness

Chavez's impact on labor issues dates back to 1962, when he cofounded the National Farm Workers Association (later named the United Farm Workers) with Dolores Huerta. They gained national notoriety for leading grape and lettuce boycotts and fasts, which raised awareness for the plight of migrant workers. Over three decades, Chavez and Huerta grew to become the faces of the fight for better wages and conditions for migrant workers.

Chavez served as an agent of change with a demeanor that was approachable, humble, direct and down-to-earth. His ability to elicit change in nonviolent fashion elevated him to the echelon of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

A collection of photos showing Chavez speaking during various visits to the East Lansing area.
The influence of Cesar Chavez in Lansing and Michigan State University stems from multiple visits in the 1970s and 80s, drawing attention to the plight of migrant farm workers in the state and inspiring students to call for increased recruitment and retention efforts for Latinx students and faculty. Photos courtesy of: Archives of Michigan

He was drawn to the Mitten State largely due to the plights of the burgeoning Latino population in Michigan, whose growth mirrored the flourishing sugar beet industry. By the late '60s, Michigan's Latino population hovered around 80,000 and was centered around the sugar processing plants in Saginaw and Lansing.

There are many people in the area who were inspired by meeting with Chavez personally, especially since he maintained a consistent presence in Lansing and on MSU's campus.

Returning the favor

Diana Rivera recalls the summer after her freshman year at MSU in 1973. She worked in farm fields from ages 8 to 18 before coming to MSU, so she was intrigued to hear him speak in Wells Hall. Chavez appeared shy and reserved. As he stepped before the nearly full auditorium, Rivera wondered if the crowd would be able to hear him. His voice, however, needed little amplification. "He spoke with strength in his voice as well as his message about conditions in California that I felt I had lived," Rivera says. "It's relative, I guess, that as a 10-year-old kid working in the hot Michigan summer days hoeing mile-long rows of beets or beans, it might as well have been California."

A headshot of Diana Rivera, Michigan's first Chicano Studies Librarian and former head of MSU's Cesar E. Chavez Collection, which she oversaw for more than 24 years.

Chavez inspired her in part to become an activist, leading or joining many rallies and boycotts herself as a student. She later went on to become Michigan's first Chicano Studies Librarian and head of MSU's Cesar E. Chavez Collection, which she oversaw for more than 24 years. "I am so honored to have helped further Chavez's message and history as head of the collection," says Rivera, now librarian emerita and Spirit of Frida Civil Rights Award honoree. "Chavez was such a humble man that I think he would feel uneasy knowing of a collection honoring him, but he would be pleased to know his message was long lasting."

So much so that MSU can trace the number of programs serving its Latinx students to Chavez and Huerta, according to Rivera. "I'd attribute it to their first visits, their longstanding friendships to community members still living here and the enduring support of student boycott/strike actions," she says.

Their inspiration led to increases in Latinx student recruitment, faculty and staff hiring and establishing minority aid programs and the King-Chavez-Parks scholarships. They also helped influence the MSU trustees to approve a plan in 1972 to offer children of migrant workers in-state tuition. "The current Chicano/Latino Studies Program was the result of work, actions, meetings, negotiations and planning by students, faculty and university administrators, many of whom knew or grew up knowing about Chavez and Huerta's work," Rivera adds.

Latinx students comprise approximately 5% of MSU's total student population. All of these students were born after Chavez's death. However, people like Rivera, who were influenced by Chavez's visits, work to instill his legacy in today's Spartans. On March 31, Chavez's birthday, MSU celebrates Cesar Chavez Day, honoring both Chavez and Huerta.

Educating 'one farm worker at a time'

Connecting past and present and adding a personal touch are keys to student recruitment and retention, says Luis Garcia, longtime director of MSU's Migrant Student Services. "We have a saying, 'educating one farm worker at a time,' and that's the approach we follow for every student," he says. "We started with just over a handful of students, and it's grown over time. Even today, we are the only university in the Big 10 that has an office and consolidated efforts specifically designed to assist migrant and seasonal farm workers in their educational endeavors."

A group photo of the students and staff involved in MSU's College Assistance Migrant Program Scholars Initiative.
MSU's College Assistance Migrant Program Scholars Initiative is a residential program that assists migrant and seasonal farm worker students with academic, social and financial support to enable students to complete their first year of college.