April 14 2010 12:00 AM

Naming a street after the labor leader hopes to avoid pitfalls of last go-around

When you meet Daniel Soza for the first time, several traits are clear right off the bat. The academic specialist with Michigan State University’s Assistance Migrant Program is soft-spoken, relaxed and engaging — not the traits you would most associate with a former bodyguard of labor leader Cesar Chavez.

“I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life but that was probably the most difficult,” Soza said.

Soza was the bodyguard of the Mexican-American civil rights activist when he visited Michigan in the 1960s. Chavez was a firm believer and practitioner of non-violence; however, many of the farmers he was at odds with were not. A security detail came out of necessity.

“So here I was ready to protect him with a baseball bat or whatever I needed, but he said, ‘If you’re going to be my bodyguard, there can be no violence,’” Soza said.

Soza reminisced about his time with Chavez while attending a fundraiser held at the UAW Local 602 in Lansing at the end of March.

March 31 was Chavez’ birthday and is observed as Cesar Chavez Day in Michigan. Local 602 is where Chavez would often visit when he came to Lansing. The fundraiser, however, was also significant to both Lansing and to the memory of Chavez, who died in 1993.

The group Lansing for Cesar E. Chavez is raising money to rename a portion of Grand River Avenue, the main drag through Old Town, to Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. The renamed street would start where Grand River splits from Oakland Avenue, continues where it jogs northwest through north-side neighborhoods and Old Town, and would end at Pine Street.

The street name application and resolution was submitted to Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope and is now being reviewed by the city’s Memorial Review Board. The board has 90 days to make its recommendation to the City Council, which will eventually vote yes or no for the name change.

Elva Reyes, the chairwoman for Lansing for Cesar E. Chavez, said the group held an open forum where many ideas were discussed about how to commemorate Chavez.

“We think it will bring the community together,” Reyes said. “To the Latino community he is our Martin Luther King Jr.”

Like King, Chavez once had a street named after him in Lansing. In 1994 a section of Grand Avenue, which runs through downtown on the west bank of the Grand River, was successfully renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue, only to be overturned later by voters. Reyes said that left a void in the community.

“It was very demoralizing when they took it away,” Rudy Reyes, Elva’s husband, said.

Berta Soza, Daniel’s wife, echoed Rudy’s sentiment, “It would be great to have it renamed back. It was very degrading when it was and then they took it back.”

This time the renaming has a chance to pass and stay.

A t - L a r g e Councilwoman Carol Wood supports the group’s efforts and believes the right steps are being taken to listen to the concerns of property owners and the community.

“We listen very closely to the people actually living there as well so we are balancing everyone’s needs,” Wood said. She added that it is important to make sure everyone buys into the name change so there isn’t another repeat of what happened with the last renaming.

Businesses that line Grand River in Old Town would likely be the most affected by the name change.

Brittney Hoszkiw, executive director of the Old Town Commercial Association, says businesses in the area generally support the idea.

“I think as a cultural community, everyone is very supportive of putting a memorial in place,” she said.

Hoszkiw added that some people in the area think the change could help clear up address confusion associated with Grand River Avenue in that area, while others think it might only add to the confusion.

Though Hoszkiw says the community supports the measure, the Old Town Commercial Association has yet to take an official stance on the name change. She says the measure must be conscious of the small businesses in the area and the financial burden they may incur due to the name change.

Wood said when Logan Street was changed to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the effect of the change on businesses was taken into consideration. Businesses had a chance to phase in the address change, using up all of their old stationery, and the post office delivered mail to both street names during the transition.

The commercial association also mentioned making the change honorary so the street name would not change — alleviating some of the businesses concerns — but the memorial to Chavez would remain.

If the change is approved, the group would not be responsible to pay for the new street signs, but it would be required to pay for the mailings to notify property owners about any name change, which Reyes said the group has already been doing.

Just because the application makes its way through the necessary procedures does not mean the change will happen, Wood said.

“We still have the ability to vote it up or down as Council if we don’t think there is enough buy-in,” she said.

But she continued, “I absolutely believe we need to bring honor and respect to someone who has made a difference not only nationally but locally within the community.”

And no one knows Chavez’ impact locally more than Rudy Reyes.

Reyes, a Lansing native, worked on farms in Lansing as a young boy. He said Chavez and his teachings helped him realize working on a farm was not the only job he could attain.

“He’s my hero,” Reyes said.

Reyes believes renaming the street after Chavez would help denote the Latino community in the city and it would also embody Lansing’s history.

“A labor leader for a labor city,” he said.