Hispanic heritage month: How Cesar Chavez Changed Michigan


EAST LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – The Black Civil Rights movement had Martin Luther King help pave the path to freedom. For many Hispanic and Latino farm-worker, Cesar Chavez was the leader of their movement and his visit to MSU in the 1970’s changed lives in more ways than one.

“My very first memory of that was having to leave our dog in San Antonio, Texas,” remembers Diana Rivera, Librarian Emerita at Michigan State University.

She remembers picking sugar beets and other vegetables in 1960s Bay county. From the age for 8 to 18, she picked or sowed along with other migrant farm workers.

“I remember feeling so sad. That I had to hoe, and hoe, and hoe, and hoe from one road to another road,” Rivera said.

She worked on mile long stretches of farm land but through perseverance and help from Chicano students, she found her way to MSU. It was there where she would cross paths with Cesar Chavez during a visit to the school in 1973.

“Chavez just walked up to the front. He was just so humble and quiet, soft spoken. And I thought “I don’t know how this guy’s going to do it,” She said.

She remembers that it wasn’t the volume of his speech but it was the power of his words that inspired the crowd to press for fair wages and better conditions. Things Dale Flores Freeman, director of migrant affairs for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services seen change.

“When I was a child, back in the 70’s, there was still you know, outhouse were very prevalent, very centralized showers,” he said. “Some of those houses still exists but a lot of that has been replaced by newer housing,” Freeman said.

He said that he would not be where he’s at today without the self-advocacy that Chavez inspired.

“A lot of what we have and are able to offer people in this state was the result of the work of the people that came before me. The farm workers that advocated for themselves, those that advocated for the farm workers,” he said.

Andrea Salazar McMillan, MSU’s Chicano and Latino Studies librarian said that the message of self-advocacy echoed within the Hispanic community, further bolstering a sense of pride.

“I think that really helped to structure this identity of coming together for a cause. And working to help each other, to essentially lift each other up,” she said.

That pride can be seen from Lake Michigan communities to Detroit. Much of that pride can be found in MSU’s Cesar Chavez collection that collects pieces of Hispanic heritage from around the mid-west.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.