This spring marks 25 years since 23rd Street in the Westside neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri, was named after civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.
The efforts the community went through echo the current attempt by a coalition of black leaders to rename Paseo Boulevard after Martin Luther King Jr.
A petition drive, backed by Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, seeks to rename The Paseo, an iconic Kansas City boulevard, after the slain civil rights leader. If the petition initiative gets 1,700 valid signatures, the Paseo option could end up on August's ballot. If the advisory group comes back with a recommendation to rename a street, it would fall to the Kansas City Council.
Cris Medina runs the Guadalupe Center, which sits on Avenida Cesar Chavez. Medina said he understands what the leaders petitioning to rename Paseo Boulevard after Martin Luther King Jr. are going through – Latino leaders went through the same thing.
In the 1990s, Latino leaders wanted to rename Southwest Boulevard after Chavez, but that met opposition when some businesses didn’t want to change their street address.
The Latino leaders also faced the same jurisdictional issues as those pushing to have Paseo renamed: Changing the name of a boulevard needs to go through Kansas City's Parks and Recreation Commission. (Changing the name of a street is up to the city’s street-naming committee in the planning and development department.)
The other issue was that Chavez wasn’t from Kansas City.
In the end, instead of Southwest Boulevard, the city renamed 23rd Street in 1993.
“I remember the first time I used the address when we changed all of our envelopes – 1015 Avenida Cesar Chavez – people wouldn’t believe it," Medina said. "They were like, how do you say this? I was like, that’s Spanish for Avenue of Cesar Chavez and it was fantastic, especially for other Latinos in other parts of the country, they were like, 'What, that’s your address?'”
Cesar Chavez, who died in 1993, was a Mexican American who co-founded the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and led national boycotts of lettuce and grape growers in order to advocate for workers' rights. He is considered the most famous Latino civil rights leader.
Gene Chavez, a museum consultant (and no relation to Cesar, though he says he enjoys it when people ask him if he is), says the impact of King – just like that of Cesar Chavez – is important to certain communities because their impact was national.
“When you think of the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, it’s very similar and perhaps even greater, the whole idea of non-violent change in societies is something that is vital and important to all nations and cities,” Chavez says.
“It was to the total American population, and that’s why his message caught on – the lettuce boycotts, the grape boycotts – all of that really had national significances.”
Even residents of Kansas City's Westside such as Lupe Aguilar, who might not have been involved with the administrative and political details of the name change, say they like the end result.
Aguilar, who is in her 70s, says serving the community has always mattered to her. From helping elderly residents when she was younger to passing down knowledge now that she is an elder herself, Aguilar says one of the benefits of having a street named after Chavez is to make it easier to teach young people about his accomplishments.
“He was a person who did for the migrant workers, he advocated, he was a leader,” Aguilar says. “And I’m sure he struggled to accomplish what he did.”
Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon.