IN A CITY as progressive as ours, the urge to embrace diversity comes naturally. So it’s no surprise that barely a year after Rosa Parks Way supplanted N Portland Blvd, there’s a movement afoot to rechristen N Interstate Ave as César E. Chávez Blvd. The proposal, brought to City Council by local Latino activists in September, offers a chance not only to honor a great labor leader, but to acknowledge and celebrate the city’s growing Latino population as well. It also presents Portland with an opportunity to get it completely wrong.
At public hearings held in North Portland in the fall, attendees heard a lot about the cost the proposed name change would impose on small businesses and the city. But these cash concerns ignore larger and more important questions: Should Portland name a street after Chávez in the first place? And is Interstate the right street?
Honorary streets are more than just memorials, says Derek Alderman, a professor at East Carolina University who has written extensively about the renaming of streets after Martin Luther King Jr. These streets symbolize what’s historically important to a city. Many Portland streets commemorate founders like John Couch and Asa Lovejoy, the loser of the coin toss that famously gave the city its name. That’s fine, except that the faces behind those early street namings are predominantly white. No street was named in honor of Beatrice Morrow Cannady, a civil rights activist who used her position as publisher of The Advocate in the 1920s and ‘30s to campaign for equal rights for the city’s African-Americans.
Portland can acknowledge the bias of its past and demonstrate its level of tolerance by renaming some streets after members of the communities it has historically ignored. Chávez represents one such group. "It’s a way to acknowledge Portland’s Latino community," says José Romero, who is leading the César E. Chávez Boulevard Committee’s push. "We’re here, and we have our customs, our culture. And we want to use them, and César, to connect with the greater community."
Born in Arizona in 1927, Chávez led a tenacious, nonviolent crusade for the rights of farmworkers that has earned him a place in the pantheon of American heroes. He founded the National Farm Workers Association (now the United Farm Workers union) in 1962 and spent most of his life campaigning across the country, including several trips to Oregon. Chávez regularly consulted with Oregon’s farm and nursery workers union, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, and in 1971 he lent his support to the fight against Oregon legislation that would have prohibited farmworkers from striking and negotiating with farmers over pesticide exposure. Today, in a state where more than 98 percent of farmworkers are Latino, and in a city where Latinos make up the largest minority at roughly 8 percent of the population, Chávez’s significance cannot be ignored, says Romero.