KEENE, Calif. — Hundreds gathered Thursday to see military honors rendered belatedly for Cesar Chavez, the legendary rights and labor leader but also a Navy veteran.
On the 22nd anniversary of his death, Chavez received full graveside honors from the U.S. Navy at his memorial in California's Central Valley.
The idea for the ceremony came from a current sailor who learned Chavez didn't receive the honors at the time of his death, according to the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
Paul Chavez, son of the civil rights leader, said Chavez's sudden death from natural causes in 1993, at age 66, had surprised his family. He and his siblings didn't ask at the time for military recognition for their father, who served in the western Pacific during a 1946-48 stint in the Navy, according to the foundation's website.
"We just didn't do it," Paul Chavez said near his father's memorial site, where crowds gathered in the foothills of the San Joaquin Valley for the service. "We were busy trying to comfort people and bury him with dignity. We had always focused on his work with farmworkers" rather than his military service.
It was Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Marco Valdovinos who contacted the family with the idea of arranging the military honors after watching a film released last year capturing the life and work of Chavez. Valdovinos led the military ceremony.
Chavez's foundation hosted, along with the National Park Service, which operates Chavez's memorial.
"I know he's looking from above," his sister 89-year-old Rita Chavez Martin said. "His spirit is right here. I always feel his spirit." She said her brother, known for his humility, never sought recognition for his work.
Born near Yuma, Arizona, Chavez used marches, boycotts and hunger strikes to bring attention to the plight of the country's farmworkers. He formed the National Farm Workers Association, which later became United Farm Workers.
The slogan he popularized for farmworkers, "Si, se puede," or "Yes, we can," evolved to also become the presidential campaign slogan of Barack Obama. His image appears on murals and countless streets and city parks are named for him.
Mirtha Villarreal-Younger, deputy secretary for the California Department of Veterans Affairs and Army veteran, told the gathering that each of those streets is a beacon of hope for Latinos.
"Each of us has power within us to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks regardless of our humble beginnings," she said. "Cesar led the way. He showed us how."
Sailors, veterans and relatives turned out for the formal ceremony. Organizers arranged a resounding rifle salute, taps and the folding of a U.S. flag handed to Chavez's relatives, including his widow, Helen.
The ceremony won't be the only time the Navy has honored Chavez. In 2012 it launched a cargo ship it named the USNS Cesar Chavez.
Organizers say Thursday's honors are an opportunity to show the public that Chavez's time in the military helped him become a renowned fighter and organizer.