School named to honor Cesar Chavez
May 23, 2002
Sharahn D. Boykin
Special to the Gazette

Spicy salsa rhythms and melodious Merengue beats resonated throughout the University of Maryland Conference Center Friday night. Elegant candle lit tables, laughter, food and fun were abundant during the gala to celebrate the naming of Cesar Chavez Elementary School after the Hispanic civil rights activist.

About 150 parents, teachers and community members attended the evening's festivities. "This was a dance for the people," said Adela Acosta, principal of the school.

Earlier in the day, a dedication ceremony was held at the school on Riggs Road, which featured pupils dancing and singing and appearances by School Superintendent Iris T. Metts and school board member Doyle Niemann.

Cesar Chavez, a civil rights activist, founded the United Farm Workers union in 1962. He devoted his life fighting for the rights of migrant workers.

Cesar Chavez Elementary is the only school in the county named after a Hispanic and under the leadership of a Hispanic principal.

"More than half of our families come from backgrounds similar to Mr. Chavez. I think it was very fitting that we were able to dedicate this school to him," Acosta said.

The school was originally named Parkway Elementary School. But once she discovered the school shared its name with a local liquor store, Parkway Liquors, Acosta said it was time for a change. After discussing her idea to change the school's name with the PTA and teachers, two other names besides Chavez's were considered author Anne Frank and Helen Keller, who overcame tremendous obstacles in her life because she was both blind and deaf.

But Chavez was a logical choice because of what he represented to the entire community, Acosta said.

Soon after the school reopened its doors in 1999, the school community petitioned the school board to have the school named after Chavez.

"Cesar Chavez helped the disenfranchised poor whose rights were being violated," she said. " Girls, boys, children especially that were being exploited by the farmers in this country. They were not going to school. They were not getting paid very much. They were living in squalor. And he saw this as a civil rights issue just like Martin Luther King."

School board member Doyle Niemann (Dist. 3) said Chavez was a very appropriate person to name the school after since many of the pupils it serves are Hispanic.

"I think Cesar would feel that it's appropriate to have his name on the school because it's a school where students come with real challenges," Niemann said. "Many have language difficulties because their immigrants or come from low income backgrounds, so they have to work to overcome tremendous obstacles. And that's what he did his whole life. I think he would find it very appropriate that we named the school after him."

Chavez also provides a role model for county school children, Acosta said.

"The children growing up in this county now have a hero and see that it's possible to be poor, disenfranchised, and to be an immigrant, and still be able to be successful," said Acosta, who is also a member of the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education.

Niemann agreed.

"When we picked a name, we wanted a name that would have some draw for the students who are going to be there, which includes a large Hispanic population, as well as somebody who could serve as a role model of inspiration for the students," he said. "Cesar Chavez certainly did that."


Rudy Arrendondo, local representative of the Washington area Farmer's Workers Union, spoke on behalf of the Chavez family who was unable to attend the festivities.

Arrendondo and his family traveled the country as migrant farm workers. Starting out as a organizer in south Texas, he has worked with the Migrant Farm Worker's Union since the age of 17.

"For my family to survive, they had to have us work," Arrendondo said. "Through the difficult times I had as a child and as a young man trying to go to school, trying to work, and trying to help the family, I felt very strongly that no child ought to have to go through what I went through, particularly with low wages."

Acosta also stressed the importance of continuing to bring the African America and Hispanic cultures of the school together in a positive way. "Hispanics and blacks are neighbors in [the] school and they work together. They live along side each other , but they don't have an opportunity many times to spend social time together where they can break down those barriers that exist between cultures."

E-mail Ulric Hetsberger at