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Eastern Presents Cesar Chavez Awards: Chavez’s Granddaughter Delivers Keynote Address

Published on April 02, 2015

Eastern Presents Cesar Chavez Awards: Chavez’s Granddaughter Delivers Keynote Address

Eastern Connecticut State University presented its Cesar Chavez Distinguished Service Awards to Eastern senior Jonah Sanchez, Edili Lopez, hall director at Constitution Hall and Chris Soto, founder of Higher Edge, on April 1 in the Student Center Theatre.

This is the 12th year of the awards program, which has recognized 36 individuals over its existence.  The program was initially called the Latin American Distinguished Service Awards but was changed to honor the late union organizer and humanitarian.

Soto is a Coast Guard Academy graduate and has a master’s degree from Brown University. He is a member of the Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission. Soto created Higher Edge, an organization in the New London area dedicated to helping first-generation students enroll and graduate from college. He urged the audience to join him in “paying it forward for the next generation.”

After receiving her master’s degree, Lopez spent time in the AmeriCorps VISTA program, working with Latino students to help them prepare for college. Now she helps guide freshmen in Eastern’s Constitution Hall and co-advises the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS). She said she was grateful for the opportunities she has been given at Eastern to help students succeed. “Let us create a better future for our future leaders.”

Sanchez is a Business Administration major, and as president of OLAS, has organized a number of activities for OLAS members to work with local schoolchildren. He also is interning at United Technologies in Hartford, and will attend their Financial Leadership Program after graduation. Sanchez recalled the words of boxing legend Muhammad Ali: “I hated every day of training, but told myself to suffer now and live the rest of my life as a champion.”

Eastern President Elsa Núñez opened the ceremony with welcoming remarks, noting that the day before, President Barack Obama had declared March 31 as “Cesar Chavez Day.”

While Chavez was not formally educated, Núñez said he surrounded himself with books and was a source of constant wisdom. She then read two of Chavez’s more famous quotations. Speaking of the purpose of higher education, Chavez said, “Students must have initiative; they should not be mere imitators. They must learn to think and act for themselves—and be free.” Speaking to the need for students to give to their local communities, Chavez also said that “real education should consist of drawing the goodness and the best out of our own students. What better books can there be than the book of humanity?”

Núñez also said the challenge of ensuring that students from all backgrounds receive a college education continues, indicating that Latinos in Connecticut are three times as likely as whites to drop out of high school While 27.2 percent of all Americans have a college degree, only 12.3 percent of Latinos do. “We need to do better,” Núñez said.

A special guest for this year’s event was Julie Rodriguez, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Chavez’s granddaughter, who gave the keynote address. “Thank you for carrying the torch and legacy of my grandfather.” She said her grandfather led by example, becoming a vegetarian, an advocate of non-violence and a practitioner of yoga to develop a meditative approach to life.

Rodriguez began working in the farm worker movement at age five, and today serves in the Obama administration as an advocate and organizer in the areas of health care, immigration reform, working families and education. “The United States is a work in progress,” she declared, “a destiny to be fulfilled. Each of us can contribute to a more just, fair and better society.”

Opening the event were Anamel DeLeon and Leopolda Navarro, who entertained the packed audience with two Latin American dances.

Written by dwight bachman