On Cinco de Mayo, the Navy’s newest ship was christened in honor of the late Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez. His widow cracked the champagne bottle and christened the USNS Cesar Chavez at the San Diego shipyard owned by General Dynamics NASSCO near Barrio Logan. The cargo ship then slid into San Diego Bay, witnessed by about 7,000 people – many of whom had worked on the ship, amidst overhead fireworks.
“I am feeling a lot of emotion tonight. I feel very proud,” said Helen Chavez.
The naming of the Navy supply ship after Chavez – who served in the Navy for two years – had its controversies, however.
At first, the Cesar Chavez family did not want the ship named after him, as he led the migrant worker movement as a non-violent advocate, and renounced violence. The family did finally relent and agreed ot the naming after they learned that the ship would be used to take carry supplies like food to other ships.
Yet another controversy has been brewing for a year. Conservatives have been objecting to what they perceive as the politicization of the naming of Navy ships, and in particular to the naming of the ship after a labor leader. A year ago, local Congressional rep Duncan Hunter, Jr., raised his opposition to the name when the Navy secretary first announced it.
Hunter said then:
”Naming a ship after César Chávez goes right along with other recent decisions by the Navy that appear to be more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy’s history and tradition.”
And more currently, Senate Republicans have taken up the cause of opposing the ship name. Some have called on the Navy to explain its choice, calling the naming a political statement that does not follow Navy protocol.
During the ceremony at NASSCO, the assistant secretary of the Navy, Juan Garcia, answered these critics:
“This the perfect name of an American hero who embodied American values that will inspire a generation of sailors.”
One of those in attendance at the evening ceremony was Jorge Aguilar, a supervisor at NASSCO, who knew firsthand during the seventies about the poor working conditions of migrant workers whom Chavez organized.
“This hasn’t happened for us. I was a farm worker before and he came to organize us up in the Salinas area and I was a part of that movement.”
Today, about 60% of the workers at NASSCO are Mexican-American and Latino.
The U-T San Diego ran an article on the event, but focused more of the industrial aspects:
One of the largest shipbuilding programs in local history ended with a big splash Saturday night when the last of 14 cargo ships built for the Navy by General Dynamics NASSCO slid into San Diego Bay as 7,000 spectators roared and fireworks arced overhead.
The launch of the Cesar Chavez wrapped up an 11-year, $6.2 billion effort to improve the Navy’s ability to deliver supplies and ammunition across the globe. The last time NASSCO built more vessels for the Navy was during the early 1970s, when it constructed 17 landing ships.
Saturday’s launch also appears to have made maritime history. The 689-foot Cesar Chavez apparently will be the final large vessel in the U.S. to ride the ways — or support rails — into the water. NASSCO, the last major shipyard still using the practice, plans to simply float future vessels into the bay to save time and money.
Naming Navy cargo ship for Chavez honors his remarkable achievements
By Richard Griswold del Castillo & Rita Sanchez / U-T San Diego / May 4, 2012
The U.S. Naval Ship Cesar Chavez will be launched today, May 5, christened in honor of the man who became an internationally known labor and civil rights leader and who has inspired generations of youth with his nonviolent philosophy of self sacrifice for others.
In 1946, Cesar Estrada Chavez enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Mexican-American youths, he answered the call of duty. Born in Yuma, Ariz., Cesar grew up as a migrant agricultural worker in the San Joaquin Valley. He went to the San Diego Naval Training Station for boot camp, was sent to the South Pacific, and served in Saipan and Guam.
In 1948, Cesar Chavez was discharged from the service and he returned to his work as a migrant laborer. He got involved in community organizing during the 1950s with the Community Service Organization (CSO). In 1962 he resigned his position as the CSO’s executive director and decided to devote himself full time to organizing farm workers.
The United Farm Workers were born in 1965 when Mexican-American farm workers joined Filipino workers in a strike against the grape growers in the Delano region just north of Bakersfield. The growers were paying wages below those that they paid the Bracero contract workers from Mexico. Chavez along with Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong and many others led a nonviolent movement to force the growers to sign a contract and recognize their union. They wanted a fair wage, water and bathrooms available in the fields, a hiring hall, and a limit to pesticide use.
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