To protest or to party?

¡QUE VIVA! Janet Berlanga, flanked by fellow protesters, chants out her respect for César Chávez and her anger over the appropriation of César Chávez Day by party-loving students and the bars that cater to them.

¡QUE VIVA! Janet Berlanga, flanked by fellow protesters, chants out her respect for César Chávez and her anger over the appropriation of César Chávez Day by party-loving students and the bars that cater to them.

Photo By Tom Angel

Just as the march honoring labor leader César Chávez was gathering in front of Ayres Hall at Chico State last Wednesday, a couple of white college-age women stopped as they were walking by and asked a Latino organizer what was going on. The organizer gave a muddled response about bars offering half-off specials on César Chávez Day, and the women returned uncomprehending but polite glances at him, apparently wondering why anyone would ever protest an opportunity for cheap liquor. As they turned to walk away, one woman asked the other, “Who’s César Chávez?”

The moment summed up Chico’s majority reaction to the recent flap over the use of Chávez’s name by some local bars to make extra money over the holiday. While Latino activists said the bars were exploiting and distorting Chávez’s memory, bar owners and their young, mostly white, college-age patrons laughed off the protests as just another excuse for touchy minorities to make headlines in the local press.

The march itself was illuminating. As about 200 people snaked through Chico’s downtown area, creating a line of bodies two blocks long and several persons wide, patrons in restaurants gawked and stared, offering snide chuckles and bemused stares to the chanting crowd. The streets were deserted for the most part, but even so the marchers were careful to stop and wait at every traffic light along the route. They were loud but polite, carrying signs in support of farm workers and chanting the usual slogans: “Sí, se puede” and “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”

As they passed the Crazy Horse bar on the opposite side of the street, a lanky, white bouncer in a cowboy hat shouted “Fuck César Chávez!” The marchers, preoccupied with their chanting, didn’t seem to notice.

The demonstration wound its way toward Normal St. Bar, a prime target of protest due to an ad it placed in a local weekly music paper offering half-priced drinks to students wearing sombreros and featuring cartoons of smiling ethnic stereotypes posing as farm workers.

At the bar, the cartoonist who drew the offending ad stepped outside, smiling, and slowly clapped his hands in mock tribute as the marchers gathered on the sidewalk shouting, “César sí, cerveza no!”

Protesters gather with signs in front of Normal St. Bar March 31.

Photo By Tom Angel

Most of those inside managed to ignore the protest, but some cast annoyed glances over their shoulders before turning their attention back to the basketball game being shown on the bar’s TV.

The next morning, one of the campus Latino groups held a press conference and rally in front of the same bar, which was already filling up with thirsty college students (the university was closed for César Chávez Day), a handful wearing novelty sombreros. Some passing drivers honked and offered upraised fists in solidarity. From other vehicles, mostly late-model SUVs full of beefy, white college kids, passengers yelled jeers, insults and slurs.

A bar patron who was smoking a cigarette inside a fenced-in back patio offered the opinion that the protesters outside were missing the bigger picture.

“I’m a janitor. I make $13,000 a year,” he said. “Most of the people [protesting] out there probably make more than I do.”

The man, who didn’t offer a name, described himself as a “white-trash motherfucker” who was more concerned with the price of milk or the cost to park his car at the last Rage Against the Machine concert than with the prevailing wages of migrant workers.

“The rich will always set the price of labor,” he said. “There’s tons of jobs out there. It’s more about whether people are willing to take them. There will always be someone on the bottom.”

The man, who had long hair and looked to be in his late 30s, was far from conservative. He likened the Bush regime’s policies to a “rape” of the country. But he said those protesting the bar’s Chávez promotion were wasting their time and fomenting racial tensions.

“They need to get over this ethnic thing—that’s what keeps us all apart. Don’t we have bigger things to think about in this country? We have to focus on the small things? When you look at what’s going on, this just seems so petty,” he said, before stubbing out his Marlboro and heading back into Normal St. for another beer.

In front of the bar, at around noon, the protest was breaking up, as some of the organizers noticed that a few bar patrons and several passersby were starting to get tipsy. The group had been warned by police the previous day not to become confrontational with any bar patrons or employees, so when a man came out of the bar and put his arm jokingly around a protester and asked for a photograph, the group decided to call it a day. In the words of one organizer, “We don’t want to give an excuse to any white people to say, ‘See, those Mexicans are always causing trouble.'”