Yesterday a Texas judge blocked the city of San Antonio from renaming a street after Cesar Chavez, the late labor activist who fought for higher wages and better working conditions for migrant farm workers. The restraining order came just days after the City Council voted to rename Durango Street, one of San Antonio’s main thoroughfares. Chavez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, for his work on civil rights and is a hero to many in the city, which is 61 percent Hispanic. Yet a state district judge sided with groups that protest that naming the street after Chavez somehow interferes with “maintain[ing] the integrity of our history.”
“It is very important that we protect the integrity of our history, and that includes objecting to changing street names,” said Bill Oliver, who represents the San Antonio Conservation Society, which sued to oppose the name change.
But Jaime Martinez, a longtime San Antonio labor leader and a former associate of Chavez, who died in 1993, disagreed.
“We’ve been waiting for fifteen years to get the renaming of a street, a major street, for Cesar Chavez,” Martinez said. “There are over 200 streets in the last 10 years that had their names changed, and there was no problem.”
But this begs the question: whose history are they “protecting”? Last week the seven Hispanic members of San Antonio City Council all voted in favor of the name change, while the two white members, the one African-American and the one Asian-American member voted no. Proponents of the change pointed out that questions weren’t raised until Chavez’s name came up. During deliberations, one member complained that the change would cost too much, echoing “the arguments made when Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a federal holiday — what a terrible hassle it would be.”
Councilman Reed Williams, a white Republican from San Antonio’s posh North Side, made the most controversial statement in opposition to the change:
“This action feels different to me,” he said. “It feels like a political majority is pushing its will, and it doesn’t have to.” [...]
“The political majority should concern us all, particularly for a group of folks that have been in the minority that are moving to a majority. We must be sure that everyone that does that understands the absolute responsibility that comes with being in the majority.”
Just last week, conservatives were up in arms about the Navy’s decision to name a new ship after Chavez. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) criticized the Navy’s choice as “more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy’s history and tradition.” Chavez was a Navy veteran who enlisted at age 17 and served from 1946 to 1948. Clearly these incidents are about more than Chavez’s name — they reflect a conservative movement so hostile to labor rights and history that they will go out of their way to block decisions by democratic bodies to honor anyone who fought for workers. Duncan and Oliver seem interested in protecting only a selective version of “our history.”