Event resonates with GJ man who marched with Chavez

Crowd honors labor-rights activist

Nelly Garcia, left, urges on a crowd of peaceful demonstrators marching along North Avenue in honor of Cesar Chavez, the Hispanic farmer and labor leader. About six dozen people participated in the march, which traveled along North from 10th Street to Third Street and back before a celebration of Chavez’ life began at Mesa State’s College Center.

When Grand Junction resident Geno Salaz marched with labor-rights activist Cesar Chavez, the former farm worker didn’t march for his rights alone.

“It wasn’t just a march for Chicanos. It was a march for everybody,” Salaz said.

Decades later, Salaz, 63, said the struggle for workers’ rights continues. But efforts like Friday’s Chavez commemoration march along North Avenue organized by Mesa State College groups make him feel good about the chances of workers getting equal treatment someday.

Salaz did not walk in Friday’s march, but he did attend a celebration afterward at the Mesa State College Center.

Mesa State’s La Raza Club and Cultural Diversity Board organized the march, which drew about 100 participants, mostly college students and teachers. Marchers shouted the Spanish equivalents of “Yes we can” and “People united will never be divided” as supporters honked along the roadway.

It was a peaceful, positive march, La Raza member and Mesa State student Darlene Mora said. The Montrose resident remembers her parents working in onion fields when she was a child. She identifies with Chavez’s message and wants people like Salaz to tell young people what it was like for the previous generation of farm workers, so the next generation knows how to continue what Chavez started.

“I still think there’s a lot of prejudice,” Mora said.

Salaz, who worked long hours with little pay hauling irrigation pipes in potato fields in the San Luis Valley, went to California a handful of times in the late 1960s and early 1970s to march with Chavez. He never got to speak with the famed activist, but he said he was happy to follow him, even when his employers were less than thrilled.

“I was so proud of doing it, I didn’t care,” he said.

His wife, Rosemary Salaz, 53, also worked in potato and lettuce fields in Colorado. As one of nine children, she had no choice but to start working in fields at age 14, she said.

“We know what hard times are,” she said.

Because of her past, Rosemary Salaz said she identifies with Chavez’s efforts to make work conditions better and bring pay up to at least minimum wage. She recently had back surgery after a lifetime of labor-based jobs, and although farm pay is better now than when she was in the fields, “It’s not enough” for the sacrifice people make, she said.

Stories like the ones the Salaz’s tell are why marches like Friday’s are so important, according to University of Colorado-Colorado Springs professor Edgar Cota Torres, keynote speaker at the celebration at the College Center.

“No breaks, no toilets, no water, less than minimum wage. That doesn’t sound very fair to me,” Torres said. “This (marching) is what changed it.”


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