As you may or may not know, here in Portland there is a movement to rename something to Cesar Chavez Blvd. As best as I can tell — mainly from friends, the website save39th.com, and its corresponding twitter account — The Cesar Chavez Boulevard Renaming Committee is a group of people with a lot of time on their hands and an overwhelming desire to rename something, anything, Cesar Chavez Blvd. A year or two ago, it was all about renaming Interstate Ave, but that got pushback and I believe something about the application was botched up. Later, it was SW 4th. Most recently, it has been about renaming 39th. I have yet to meet anyone who is actually in favor of the renaming.
I may be a relative newbie to the PDX area, having moved here just 6 years ago, but I’m a taxpayer and a recent homeowner, and therefore have no shame in saying I’m against renaming 39th. For me, 39th a landmark. My first taste of Portland was the lower blocks of Hawthorne, up through 39th. I lived about 10 blocks down from 39th. I navigate relative to 39th, Hawthorne, Belmont, and Burnside. To me, that number means significantly more than Cesar Chavez.
Let’s set the Wayback Machine to a point in my life when I did frequent establishments near a street named after Cesar Chavez, shall we? In late high school or junior college, I lived in Orange County. Because there was not much to do in The OC (and, in fact, was before it was actually called “The OC”), friends and I would often take the 45 minute drive up to LA. Once a month, a particular set of friends and I would drive up to Union Station to meet up with some geeky folks by the bank of payphones (don’t ask), then head across the way to Philippe’s Restaurant, then later to the Denny’s across the way from the jail. These were all landmarks along or near Cesar Chavez Ave in LA. And you know what?
I thought Cesar Chavez Ave was named after a BOXER. At the time, there were lots of billboards for pay-per-view fights pitting Cesar Chavez against other boxers. The name was on the billboards, mentioned on the news, and just generally floating around the collective subconscious. I never questioned this or gave it a second thought. I just assumed they were one in the same. In retrospect, I now realize it was named after the civil rights activist, but I did not consciously come to this conclusion until yesterday, when I looked him up on Wikipedia. Part of me thought the Portland rename might have been the boxer, and part of me realized that was crazy-talk and that there is probably some other Cesar Chavez that I didn’t really care enough about to look up on Wikipedia until yesterday.
The problem isn’t a street named or not named Cesar Chavez. The problem is educating people about the man and his contributions to society. Am I just going to magically know about him just because I live a mile from a street bearing his name? Are there many streets named Abraham Lincoln Blvd? I’m not talking Lincoln Blvd, as I know there are a number of those out there, because we’re not discussing Chavez Blvd — but the full name spelled out? And yet, I know who Abraham Lincoln is. I learned it in school. I’m not confusing the guy on our money with George Washington Carver, am I? Because I learned about each of them in school. It seems to me that the money and attention should be focused on teaching who Cesar Chavez is in public schools. Let the monuments to him arise naturally and organically from the public because of that education. Heck, even throw in some advertising — some billboards and PSAs about the guy. It seems to me that this is the sort of naming that needs to start from the bottom up, as a grassroots campaign, and not from the top down, by decree of a small, elite committee of fans.
But that’s just the opinion of an ignorant guy who spent the first 20 years of his life near Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, in the land of undocumented workers, 40 miles from Mexico, and was never taught about Cesar Chavez.