Sept. 12 2012 12:00 AM

César Chávez and North Lansing's Latino history


On July 30, 1973, labor leader César Chávez visited Lansing as part of a four-day swing through Michigan to gather support for a grape and lettuce boycott. In a speech at Cristo Rey Community Center on the north side of town, he broke the crowd up with a story about an elderly woman he met in Flint.

The woman told Chávez she was too old to march or picket but still wanted to help La Causa. She found her own way to put the squeeze on boycotted produce: She walked into a targeted store, gave the grapes an “extremely firm handshake” and said “Hello, grapes.”

Fighting the rising laughter, Chavez told the Lansing group that he was not advocating this tactic, only reporting it.

Chávez visited Lansing, capital of a key agricultural state, several times. He was scheduled to visit again in 1993 but died in April of that year.

Many of his visits brought him to north Lansing, the heart of sugar beet country, a mecca for migrant workers going back to the 1940s and the nucleus of a growing Latino community in Michigan’s capital that boomed in the 1960s and 1970s.

The more Chávez tried not to awe people, the more they were awed. Rosa Morales, a writer for the Lansing-based Latino newspaper El Renacimiento, described Chávez’s 1973 visit: “His manner is low-key; his approach simple and direct. He is so startlingly simple, he is like a breath of fresh air.”

Delma Lopez, a co-founder of Cristo Rey Community Center in 1968, cooked Chávez a breakfast of scrambled eggs with “a little bit of hot sauce” and flour tortillas on one of his visits. “He wouldn’t eat a steak,” Lopez said. (Chávez was a vegetarian.) “He was very quiet, not talkative. To us he was special, but he never showed off.”

Lopez has lived over 60 years in the neighborhood, which now enfolds the boutique-y gallery district known as Old Town. But for many, East Grand River — which now doubles as honorary César E. Chávez Avenue  — will always be “el córazon del barrio chicano,” “the heart of the Chicano barrio.” People and businesses come and go, but the streets of North Lansing are indelibly singed by the heat of Latino life, from Tejano music, low riders, dances and festivals to jalapeno eating contests, baseball, boxing matches and protest marches.

That’s why the Lansing for César Chávez Committee hopes to erect a gateway honoring Chávez at City Lot 56, the plaza in the heart of Old Town and the old barrio, now named César E. Chávez Plaza. This Saturday, the plaza will host the committee’s second annual Tejano/Latino Music Fest, a celebration of the area’s history and fundraiser for the gateway project (see details on page 10). 

Al Salas, 57, a former migrant worker, is the owner of Lansing Athletics and a longtime Latino community leader. He doesn’t want his kids and grandkids to break their backs over a hoe for six months out of the year, be sprayed with pesticides, squat in a ditch to relieve themselves or shuttle back and forth to crude migrant camps, as he did, but he wants them to remember how Chávez helped migrants from Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Latin countries dig to their common roots, fight for better working conditions and cultivate a community.

“We’re not trying to take Old Town back,” Salas said. “We can live together. We just want a little bit of our history not to be forgotten.”

Restaurant with smiles

Delma Lopez moved to North Lansing in 1946. Her husband, Eleuterio, got a job at the Fisher Body plant. They found a house the same day.

“There were hardly any other Mexican people when we first moved here,” she said.

In 1940, there were about 13,000 Mexicans living in Michigan, about half in Wayne County, but one source reports only eight Mexican families — 12 people — had settled in Lansing as late as 1945. 

For Delma Lopez, the welcome in 1946 might have been warmer.

“Some old people hesitated because I had eight children. They complained to the real estate: ‘They got too many kids.’ Later on they were very good neighbors. We lived together for years, until they passed away.”

In Michigan, the Latino population grew with the booming beet-sugar industry and the labor shortages created by the two world wars. Gradually, migrant workers found other jobs, often in the auto industry, and settled in Michigan.

More than 70 percent of Latinos in Lansing were Mexicans or Mexican-Americans from Texas. In Lansing, Latinos clustered on the north side, but many also settled in Urbandale, on the east side, Maple Grove on the south side, and Towar Gardens in East Lansing.

As migrant workers found year-round jobs, a social and cultural scene began to take root. Delma Lopez recalled house dances in the late 1940s, before there were regular social events. By 1950, local amateur bands played weekly dances above the old Beeman’s grocery store, at the corner of Grand River and Washington avenues (now the recently renovated Walker Building).

Beeman’s was one of the first Lansing markets to carry Mexican groceries. The first Latino social-civic group in Lansing, “La Sociedad Mutualista de Ignacio Zaragoza” (later El Comité Patriótico Mexicano) met above the store. 

Al Salas’s wife, Gina, 49, was born in Lansing, but her grandparents were migrant workers from San Marcos, Texas. Gina’s grandfather started El Sombrero Restaurant, “The Restaurant With Smiles,” on the corner of Center Street and Grand River in 1963, one of the first Mexican-owned businesses in North Town.

“All along that [Grand River] strip, where I grew up, over 50 percent of the businesses were Latino,” Lorenzo Lopez recalled. Lopez is a member of the Lansing for César Chávez Committee and Delma’s son. “Restaurants, record shops, tortilla factories, bakeries, everything was right in that area.”

Dell’s Lounge on Lake Lansing Road became an early hot spot for Tejano music and dancing. After a double feature of Mexican films, screened by Juan Beltran at the Spartan Twin Theatre near Frandor, people would gather for an after-party in North Lansing, next to what is now the Chávez Plaza.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Latino population grew, along with political consciousness and activism. By 1974, there were about 14,000 Spanish-speaking people in Ingham County. El Renacimiento, a bilingual newspaper with offices on Washington, kept Latinos informed on social, cultural and political developments.

In the streets, on the air

As a teenager, Al Salas came with his family to Michigan from Brownsville, Texas, to pick cucumbers and apples. Salas’ grandparents worked beet farms in St. Johns, DeWitt and Ionia. They also found work at the Lansing Sugar Beet plant, where Grand River Avenue crosses the river, next to the present-day César E. Chávez Plaza.

“It was like a migrant camp,” he said. “That’s another reason it was important to name the plaza after Chávez.”

Backbreaking work, lack of sanitation and water and exposure to pesticides weren’t the only hazards migrant workers faced. On Sept. 23, 1973, Salas and his family were on their way back to Texas from summer work at Archer Field in Ionia when an Arkansas service station sold the family a defective tire. The brand new Michelin blew out and the truck turned over. Salas ended up in the hospital with two broken arms and a broken collarbone. His sister was paralyzed and later died from her injuries.

“We had to deal with all kinds of trouble,” he said.

Salas came back to Lansing the next summer and studied business at Lansing Community College, with help from United Migrants for Opportunity on the 1200 block of East Grand River.

Some made the trip to Lansing almost on a whim. Gilberto Martinez, an activist and key figure in Lansing’s Latino community, came to North Town on June 1, 1964, from Crystal City, Texas.

Martinez was already an activist back in Texas, where he raised money to pay poll taxes and register voters in Crystal City and got his favored candidate elected mayor. A few years later, a new mayor fired Martinez from his city job and he found himself unemployed.

“I was standing on the sidewalk, wondering what we were going to do,” he said.

The padrino (priest) who married Martinez and his wife was a migrant worker who spent the growing season at the Morrill Farm in East Lansing.

The priest told Martinez they needed another person to work on the farm. Martinez had already spent many summers with his family, working fields in Racine, Wis.

That day, Martinez and his wife packed up and cruised to Lansing in their ‘57 Chevy Bel Air hardtop.

Martinez worked the summer at the Morrill Farm. At Cristo Rey, he met the Rev. Kenneth Faiver, who helped him enroll in LCC as a resident.

On his first night in Lansing, Martinez stayed with activists who were upset over the way a church official was handling money. 

“Three hours after I got to Lansing, I was already picketing,” Martinez said, laughing.

Against the backdrop of 1960s civil rights turmoil, a split was forming at Cristo Rey between conservative members and activists. Later that year, Martinez and others at Cristo Rey learned that Lansing Bishop Joseph Albers bought two marble angels for his lavish house on Lansing’s west side.

Former Lansing Mayor David Hollister, then a social studies teacher sympathetic to the cause, tipped Martinez off that the slowest news day is Tuesday.

Martinez called a press conference on a Monday night, declaring that the bishop “cared more about stone idols” than the well being of the migrant workers.

Soon Martinez split from Cristo Rey to start Quinto Sol, an alternative cultural and political center for Latinos in Lansing, in 1970, on East Grand River in North Town.

Along with educational and cultural programs, Martinez went into prisons to educate inmates and drug addicts (“the people Jesus helped,” Martinez said).

The center also had two pool tables — “not in the best of condition but nonetheless, for you to entertain yourself,” announced El Renacimiento on Nov. 11, 1974. 

Quinto Sol even had had a library of Spanish language books, donated in 1970 by the newly elected president of president of Mexico, Luis Echeverría.

In 1967, after unsuccessful efforts to persuade WKAR to provide Spanish language programming, Martinez and the nonprofit advocacy group Sol de Aztlan filed a petition to deny the station’s broadcast license. WKAR got the message.

“Last Saturday in April of 1968, we went on the air — first for half an hour, then an hour, then two,” Martinez said. By 1970, we had 16 hours of radio a week.” 

For Martinez and other Latinos, the radio victory was huge. Radio was the crucial tool that helped César Chávez organize scattered farm workers via transistor radios in the field. It was also part of the glue that bound Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans into a single culture and political cause. Ondas en Espanol (Waves in Spanish) still broadcasts Saturdays and Sundays on WKAR.

The high water mark of United Farm Workers activism in mid-Michigan was the 70-mile “March for Migrants” from Saginaw to Lansing in March 1967, organized with help from Lansing activist Ruben Alfaro, with telegrams of support from Chávez, U.S. Sens. Philip Hart and Robert F. Kennedy. Chávez visited Lansing the following week; Kennedy met with Alfaro when he visited Lansing in 1968.

Integral part

Lorenzo Lopez chooses his words carefully when he talks about the proposed César E. Chávez Plaza gateway.

“We want a firm foundation placed, that will not be removed, that will become an integral part of the Lansing community,” Lopez said.

“Will not be removed” and “integral” are key words for a community that is still stinging from a battle it lost 17 years ago. 

On March 14, 1994, the Lansing City Council voted to rename Grand Avenue as César Chávez Avenue. In June 1995, after some ugly backlash on op-ed pages and local talk radio, the change was reversed by city referendum.

Tim Barron, morning radio host at Q106-FM, hosted on-air visits from attorney Fred Stackable, who petitioned against the change, and supported Stackable on the air. When a syndicated comedy skit offering Mexicans for sale to do listeners’ menial chores ran on Barron’s show, Latinos and allies were incensed. (Barron declined to comment for this story.)

Angie Zamora, also a member of Lansing for César Chávez, was at Cristo Rey on election night, awaiting the outcome with her family, then-Mayor David Hollister and much of Lansing’s Latino community. “When we got the final vote, we were all crushed,” she said. “It was devastating.”

“It was a kick in the stomach,” Diana Rivera recalled. Rivera, 58, is the subject librarian for MSU’s César Chávez Collection, a trove of thousands of books and other materials related to Latino culture, art and history. She said that many opponents of the Grand Avenue name change were merely upset with the City Council’s decision process, but “there were quite a few who thought it had to do with race.”

Salas and other Lansing for César Chávez committee members regrouped, dusted themselves off and dug in with low-key persistence, a la Chávez.

On Sept. 13, 2010, the Lansing City Council adopted a resolution for an honorary street with dual signs honoring Chávez on East Grand River, from Oakland to Washington, and named the plaza at Turner and E. Grand River after Chávez.

Looking back, Salas said, it made more sense to rename East Grand River and the plaza, with all their historic significance for Latinos, than Grand Avenue. The heyday of El Renacimiento, Torres Taco House, Quinto Sol, Alsario’s Barber Shop, El Sombrero, Beltran Video, El Tango Café, Aldaco’s Restaurant and other spots has gone the way of the beet factory, but much of Lansing’s Latino population still lives on the north side. 

In 2010, 14,292 people, about 12.5 percent of the city, identified themselves on U.S. Census forms as Latino or Hispanic.

Recognition of Chávez and North Town’s Latino history is not just a nod to the nation’s fastest growing demographic. The issue touches deep cultural, historical and emotional chords. Among the more unusual artifacts in MSU’s Chávez collection is a slightly bent César Chávez Avenue sign taken down from Grand Avenue after the thumbs-down vote in 1995.

The green metal sheet was an attention magnet when Diana Rivera worked a Chávez Collection tent at a North Lansing festival honoring Chávez two years ago. “It was interesting,” she said. “People would come up to it and touch it, like it was a holy relic.”