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An incredible moment in my life

March 24, 2011
By Rich Salas

As I reflect on my junior high school days here in Fort Collins, I have come to realize that, although I did not recognize it then, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet one of my heroes - Cesar Estrada Chavez - here at Colorado State University.

Rich Salas, associate director of El Centro/Greek LifeMy counselor

I remember one of my counselors, Chuck Keating, inviting me, along with four or five of my friends, to go on a field trip to CSU. I had never stepped foot on a college campus prior to this opportunity, so I was a little reluctant to go on the field trip, but when my friends became excited about the idea of visiting a college campus and maybe visiting Moby Gym, I too became excited and decided to participate.

'You are going to get to see and hear a great leader'

I remember asking Mr. Keating, “So what are we going to do at CSU?” Mr. Keating simply replied, “You are going to get to see and hear a great leader. His name is Cesar Chavez.” My friends and I did not know who Cesar Chavez was, so we really did not pay too much attention to what Mr. Keating said about Chavez. During these years (1970s), students of color like me and my friends did not have the opportunity to learn about diverse leaders of color while in junior high or high school. In fact, during my experiences in school, very little information was ever shared with Chicano/Latino youth about our leaders, much less about the contributions Chicanos/Latinos like Cesar Chavez had made to our great country. It simply was not part of the curriculum.

On our field trip, we got a chance to see many things we had not seen or experienced before. For example, while driving in Mr. Keating’s van, he pointed out the residence halls and told us that young people who attended CSU lived there. He also explained what the “A” on the mountain stood for and spoke to me and my friends about the importance of gaining a college education. We also passed by Moby Gym, where Mr. Keating told us if we worked hard enough in the classroom, someday we could play basketball for CSU - we were all basketball players so those words got us excited. As we passed Moby Gym, I pleaded with Mr. Keating to stop so we could go inside and see what a real college gym looked like. My request was denied. “We need to get over to the main ballroom where Cesar Chavez is going to speak in about 30 minutes,” said Mr. Keating.

The air was filled with excitement

We had no choice, so we tagged along. Several hundred people were gathered in the ballroom waiting for this guy - Cesar Chavez - to come out. The air was filled with excitement as if this Chavez guy was some kind of superstar. I could not quite comprehend what all the fuss was about.

Once Cesar Chavez was introduced and stepped up to the podium to speak, you could almost hear a pin drop. The crowd became quiet. He had everyone’s undivided attention; it appeared to me that there was a high level of respect for Cesar Chavez. It was an incredible moment in my life. I have to be honest and say I don’t really remember too much about what Cesar Chavez spoke about - at the time, all I remembered him saying was, “We can overcome anything if we work together.” Sometimes he would say a few words in Spanish, too. That was music to my ears.

My memory of Cesar Chavez

In my memory of Cesar Chavez that day, he was not a tall or athletic person like I imagined him to be. For me, the positive energy he had created in the suspense of waiting to hear him speak was what had shaped my interpretation of what I expected to see in him. To my surprise, when Cesar Chavez came out to speak, he was rather the opposite of what I envisioned him to be - he was a short, soft spoken, humble but an intelligent man.

After speaking for about 30 minutes or so, the audience gave him a standing ovation. Some of the last words he said that night I will never forget; Chavez said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read, and nobody can humiliate another person who feels pride.” He ended his speech by saying, “The oppressor cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore, but the fight continues.”

With the help of Mr. Keating, after the speech we rushed to the front of the stage area and I was able to meet and shake Cesar Chavez’s hand. In retrospect, I never would have thought at the time that someday I would be co-chairing the CSU Cesar Chavez Celebration.

An incredible moment in my life

I have not heard or seen Mr. Keating for over 35 years, but I want to take this opportunity to say THANK YOU for allowing me the opportunity to experience such an incredible moment in my life. I have been inspired by the lessons and examples of leaders like Cesar Chavez to not just go on to college, but as a first-generation college student and person who worked as a migrant farm-worker, to finish college and earn advanced degrees.

Join CSU's Cesar Chavez celebration 

On behalf of the CSU Cesar Chavez planning committee, it is a great honor to welcome and invite everyone to the 2011 Cesar Chavez celebration at Colorado State University. This year, our planning committee has put together a wide range of programs and events aimed at educating and raising the awareness of the life and work of Cesar E. Chavez. This year’s theme is “Human Dignity and Spirit through Resistance, Endurance and Empowerment.” Please visit the website for details and program information.

More information

For more information, contact Rich Salas at (970) 491-0590 or rsalas@colostate.edu and Lance Wright at (970) 491-6921 or lance.wright@colostate.edu.