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Evelyn Mendoza, a UW-Madison student, speaks during an event honoring civil rights and labor activist Cesar Chavez at the Capitol Friday.

On Friday morning, mariachi music echoed throughout the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda, marking the first time in over 10 years that the state has held a celebration for Cesar Chavez.

The event was a celebration of the beloved Latino labor leader, civil rights activist and co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association. But it was also at times a commentary on how Gov. Tony Evers’ policies around immigrant residents differ from his predecessor Scott Walker's.

Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, praised Evers for introducing controversial initiatives in the budget like provisions that would allow driver’s licences and in-state tuition for undocumented residents.

“This governor stands with Wisconsin immigrants, he stands with Latino Wisconsinites. He recognizes the contributions of this part of the electorate,” Zamarripa said.

Zamarripa, along with Reps. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, and Marisabel Cabrera, D-Milwaukee, hosted Friday’s event. Former President Barack Obama instituted Cesar Chavez Day for March 31 in 2014.

Evers spoke at the event, saying Chavez’s “life work was spent identifying and addressing the needs of a community that he saw neglected.”

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Cesar Chavez Day program at the Capitol Friday.

But Evers said there is still “much work” to do, and referenced his budget initiatives to give driver’s permits to undocumented residents and in-state tuition to residents brought to the U.S. illegally as children, proposals local Latino communities have long advocated for.

“To make sure that people that are undocumented don’t pay for more tuition just because they weren’t born here, but were successful high school kids in Wisconsin, my God, it’s about time to make sure that happens,” Evers said.

Republicans have argued that this provision would give more favorable treatment to undocumented residents than to military veterans, and the proposal is unlikely to become a reality with a Republican-controlled legislature. 

On driver’s licenses, Evers told the audience “actually, I’m very confident we’re going to get there.” Some Republican lawmakers have said this should be addressed at the federal level rather than the state budget.

During the program, other speakers reflected on their own connections to Chavez’ movement.

Jesus Salas is a former migrant worker and activist who worked alongside Chavez and helped with Chavez’ grape boycotts. Salas said that after a budget was passed to include Chicano studies in the University of Wisconsin system, it took “almost a decade” to make them a reality.

“But we wouldn't give up. We knew after fighting with Chavez all those years in the grape boycott that we had to keep the eye on the prize,” he said.

Anderson, whose mother’s family is from Mexico, grew up in the central valley of California. He remembers learning about Chavez in his textbooks as someone who defended the rights of farm workers like his grandfather.

“He fought to secure fair working conditions and pay for some of our country's most vulnerable residents, our immigrant laborers,” Anderson said.

But as someone who looks “all white,” Anderson said, “being of both worlds gave me an insight into American society.”

“I understand that I have the blood of Chicano people pumping through me and I have to defend that I have to honor that every day of my life,” he said. “Whenever life throws an obstacle in my way, and that includes having lost my mom and dad to a drunk driver, I will always remember the man who said it first, ‘Si, se puede, yes we can.’”

Evelyn Mendoza, an economics student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, talked about her own grandfather’s involvement in labor protests in Mexico, and said the efforts of her grandfather and Chavez need to inspire us to action.

“(Chavez) knew after learning about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the best way to bring awareness to injustice is to organize with peace, determination and a boost of persistence,” Mendoza said. “We cannot take any of their efforts to bring change for granted.”

Attendees were happy to join in on the celebration.

“I think it’s good for our children to learn about the history,” said Fabiola Hamdan, Dane County immigration affairs specialist, “especially these times with immigration and immigrant communities under attack.”

Karen Menendez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano, said it’s “only right” to honor Chavez in a state where Latinos are “the fastest growing community, the largest community of color.”

“(Chavez) is a hero, is a role model, is equivalent to Martin Luther King. So for me, I honor this day the same as I do MLK, with the same dignity and respect,” Menendez Coller said.

As someone with close friends in the Latino community that come from migrant families, the celebration makes her “so glad,” she said.

“It’s so refreshing, quite frankly, to be able to come into the Capitol building and hear the music and see the faces and understand that different cultures are being embraced,” said Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison.

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