By Julie Chavez Rodriguez
Since my days walking through Sproul Plaza as a proud Latin American Studies major, I always knew that I was walking down a path that was paved long before I was born. It was a path that people like my grandfather, Cesar Chavez, my grandmother Helen, and of course my parents Arturo and Linda made sure was open with endless opportunities. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my journey would lead me to the White House.
Growing up in the Farm Worker Movement I was surrounded by some of the country’s best organizers. I spent my childhood in meetings, at rallies, walking picket lines, and handing out leaflets in front of super markets. I knew the names of the top five most harmful pesticides at the age of 12 and could recite some of my grandfather’s most widely known quotes. All of this is to say that I lived a tremendously privileged childhood, not in terms of material wealth, since my parents were full time volunteers for the United Farm Workers, but in terms of experience. The opportunity to travel with my grandfather, to learn from him, and to see him organizing is one of the most valuable classrooms I have ever been in.
Last week, when we had the opportunity to have the president host a White House screening of the new movie “Cesar Chavez,” I was overwhelmed with pride. It was as though my memories of childhood were intersecting with my new role in the Obama Administration. But there was one thing that remained constant and that was my role as an organizer. My grandfather used to tell us that the job of an organizer was to help ordinary people do extraordinary things, and that is how I have spent the last two and a half years serving our president.
As I introduced President Obama last week, I reflected on the sacrifice, service, and dedication we all make to improve this country and ensure we live up to our values. Below is a short excerpt from that introduction that for me epitomizes the important responsibility that I carry with me, knowing that I will forever be a Chavista!
When my grandfather decided to organize farm workers, he didn’t just start a union, he galvanized a movement.
All of the people I met who knew my grandfather had two things to say: first, my grandfather’s drive and sheer determination to continue organizing against all odds was infectious — those of us who grew up in the Farm Worker Movement call it our Si Se Puede attitude — and second, my grandfather taught them how to organize.
Whether it was marching, knocking on doors, or passing out leaflets for the United Farm Workers, that was the first time many of them had ever done any kind of organizing or public action. So I knew that the real legacy my grandfather left behind was in the hearts and minds of those he touched who would never sit idle in the face of injustice.
When I first heard President Obama speak, I could see my grandfather’s legacy in him. I could tell that he had that same Si Se Puede attitude and, like my grandfather, he trained a whole new generation of young organizers to know and believe that they could change the course of history. For those reasons I knew that I had to be a part of his administration, to carry on the work and the values of Cesar Chavez through the vision that our president has for this country.
So every day that I walk through the gates of the White House, I’m reminded that this is more than a job; it is a life’s work that began generations before me and will continue for many generations to come, thanks to my grandfather and to our President Barack Obama.
Julie Chavez Rodriguez is the Deputy Director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House and a UC Berkeley alumna.