Pitzer community celebrates ties to César Chávez at annual breakfast

A breakfast table features a Mexican breakfast
The event paid tribute to the legacy of the labor and civil rights giant by honoring community organizations and individuals  (Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

On March 31, hundreds of students, workers and other adults gathered at an off-campus conference center for the 19th annual César Chávez Day Breakfast. 

Hosted by the Latino & Latina Roundtable of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valley, the event paid tribute to the legacy of the labor and civil rights giant by honoring community organizations and individuals who have exemplified the Roundtable’s mission “to improve the quality of life and socio-economic justice of the Latinx community and those facing inequities.” Among the morning’s awardees were Pitzer College workers fighting to unionize and Pitzer students in the college’s Student Worker Alliance supporting the drive. 

José Calderón, emeritus professor of sociology and Chicano/a Latino/a Studies at Pitzer and the Roundtable’s president, explained the event’s mission to celebrate and commemorate those fighting for civil rights. 

“It’s to celebrate all those … who have used their lives like César Chávez to fight for worker rights, immigrant rights, quality of life [or] the environment,” Calderón said. “It brings people of all nationalities and sexualities together to remember this day in terms of how we can use our lives to organize and change the problems which affect our community.” 

The breakfast is also one of the biggest fundraisers of the year for the Roundtable, which has been serving communities in and around the city of Pomona for nearly two decades. The celebration predates former President Barack Obama’s designation of March 31 as César Chávez Day, a U.S. federal commemorative holiday, in 2014. The 5Cs recognized the holiday last Friday, suspending all classes for the day. 

Although not officially a 5C event, Pitzer workers, students and faculty who attended felt an especial significance in this year’s program, given the ongoing battle at the college where recently unionized members have filed multiple Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) claims against Pitzer College and Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO). 

Many of the students honored at the event were students of Calderón, studying labor organizing in his class. Chávez — the Mexican-American trailblazer who improved pay and working conditions for farmers through strikes, boycotts and collective action, which eventually led to the formation of the United Farm Workers — was a huge inspiration for Calderón who worked to bring his experiences home to students.

“When I graduated from college, I traveled to Delano to work with [and meet] César,” he recalled, referring to the town roughly three hours north of Claremont where Chávez fought some of his earliest battles. “When I started teaching at Pitzer, I wondered if I could create a class that would make them feel the way I felt.” 

Over time, Calderon created opportunities for students to get involved with others fighting for labor rights in California.

“I got involved because I got to know my coworkers. We’re here today because we fought for each other. It’s that simple. When you find out there’s injustice, what you do is stand up for each other.”

“For 29 years, we’ve taken students to live and work with the farmworkers during their spring break in La Paz and Delano, California, and from that has come a force of students,” he said. “That’s how we’ve involved students and helped them understand that what you’re learning in the classroom can really be put to work to change the conditions in our communities.”

Workers on campus also described how they’ve learned from each other. 

“I got involved because I got to know my coworkers,” said Tony Hoang, a Pitzer groundskeeper and union organizer who spoke at the event. “We’re here today because we fought for each other. It’s that simple. When you find out there’s injustice, what you do is stand up for each other.”

In recent weeks, the Claremont Student Worker Alliance (CSWA) has been fighting on behalf of three former subcontracted dining workers who were fired for expressing union support. Student speakers at the event touched on this ongoing struggle and CSWA’s continued activism.

“I want to acknowledge the fact that this union has been won several times in spite of the rhetoric and anti-union campaign that Pitzer has been running for a long time,” Francisco Villaseñor PO ’25 said. “Last week we had students conduct a boycott of Pitzer dining hall services. We had less than 20 people cross the picket line all day. We shut the dining services down for the entire day. That is organized.” 

But, he emphasized, “the fight at Pitzer is not over.”

Students who attended the event also found inspiration in the stories of other honorees. They included the National TPS Alliance, which advocates on behalf of migrants to the United States who can’t return to their home countries safely and rely on Temporary Protected Status, a program that enables them to remain legally in the United States on a temporary basis. They also discussed the Lopez Urban Farm, which brings businesses, local nonprofits and university students and faculty together to create a working urban farm on a three acre plot in the city of Pomona. 

At the breakfast, attendees participated in “the farmer’s clap,” a rousing cheer, and referred to each other as “brothers and sisters,” a traditional union greeting conjuring up the solidarity of labor and the early days of the United Farm Workers. As Lisa Nashua, a trustee of the Pomona Unified School District, noted, Calderón has been crucial to building up this community

“I went to Claremont McKenna [College]. My husband worked for 10-15 years at Pitzer, so we got to know Dr. Calderon many years ago,” Nashua said. “Him reminding people about equity years and years ahead of his time was so critical. I think this event speaks to the need to recognize all different members of our constituencies.”

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