Walking in Cesar Chavez’s Footsteps

Last week, the San Jose City Council unanimously approved an official Cesar E. Chavez walkway, a five-mile route beginning downtown at the park named after the civil rights hero who founded the United Farm Workers of America. The route will continue east all the way down Santa Clara Street, almost to 680, and then south before looping back up and around to the Mexican Heritage Plaza.

Aside from those two plazas, five other landmarks along the route will be designated with simple signs: (1.) The Cesar Chavez Arch of Dignity, Equality and Justice, which sits right outside the Music Building on the SJSU Campus; (2.) The Mayfair Community Center; (3.) Cesar Chavez Elementary School; (4.) Our Lady of Guadalupe Church; and (5.) Chavez’ former house on Scharff Avenue.

Now, as you would expect, any time the city of San Jose decides to establish an official walkway commemorating anyone or anything, the urban-blight exploration junkie needs to kill the pain at all costs and emphasize everything the city did not decide to highlight along the prescribed course. There is so much to see and do along Santa Clara Street between downtown and the East Side, it’s hard to fathom. Of course, you have to temporarily bail from the four-wheeled cage and go tromp around for a few miles.

For example, one would probably have to be on foot to discover such hidden gems as Dulceria Mi Carnaval Party Supplies at 24th and Santa Clara streets. This corner shack is by far the best place to buy piñatas anywhere in San Jose. Anything that can be made into a piñata, you’ll find it inside this place. It’s a truly crackpot find.

If you keep going eastward from there, you’ll pass by quite possibly the most bizarre variety of distinct old commercial buildings and facades—fixed-up, rundown or anything in-between. You’ll discover a plethora of dime stores, cheap restaurants and other low-income mom-and-pop retail holes, comprising what seems like a completely discarded area of San Jose: a golden promenade between 24th Street and Highway 101 that time has simply forgotten.

For example, Valley Saw Inc. at 1269 E. Santa Clara is always a great place to stagger into. It’s located in a cordial butterscotch-colored building that must be at least 60 years old. For bird feeders, band-saw blades and household fans, this is the place. There are fenced-off houses, functioning ‘50s gas stations, even a boarded-up lumber shop—all along the same stretch.

And just before you do arrive at 101, you’ll descend upon one of the most precious hidden jewels anywhere in America’s 10th-largest city: Kumar’s Island Market at 1440 E. Santa Clara St. In one little hole-in-the-wall establishment, you can buy unusual cuts of meat and fish from Australia and Polynesia, as well as XXXXL-size Hawaiian shirts, fenugreek seeds, boxes of sarongs, Guam-logo hoodies, Samoan music CDs, magazines, canned goods, homemade bread and who knows what else. The current owner—my old drinking pal Suren from the Spartan Pub 18 years ago—will talk your ear off if you go in there, so allow some time.

While Kumar’s provides an authentic island experience, the strip mall just east of King and Santa Clara offers a true destroyed urban-blight feel. This intersection, in fact, is a perfect place to soak in the yin-yang polar opposites of the social and economic spectrums. You have the Mexican Heritage Plaza, costing tens of millions and including the most state-of-the art theater in the whole city, and right across the street one sees a gorgeously decrepit, faded pink, infirmary-looking blighted strip mall—a splendid half-boarded-up paean to negligent landlords worldwide.

At the western corner of this blighted masterpiece sits a wrecked watering hole in all its devastated glory, aptly called Richard’s Bar. Ten years ago, it was called Bob’s Lounge. I guess Bob sold it. In any event, to all urban-blight photographers: this entire mall is your Shangri-la. Go for it. The blight junkie signs off for now.

6 Comments

  1. I don’t know the answer to that, but the Chavez Family Vision is here:
    http://www.chavezfv.org/

    I think any walking tour like this in SJ is a great idea, but it just seems a little kooky how they identified two spots downtown, then five more in the Mayfair area and sort of arbitrarily picked three miles of Santa Clara Street to connect them up, as if mass amounts of people are going to go to downtown/SJSU and then walk all the way to 680 to see the other spots. Anyway, that’ll be in next week’s….
    -gary

  2. Thank you Gary, I’ll contact them. I saw part of the Council Meeting where they were talking about needing to fund raise for something related to Chavez. (It took me years after the boycott was over to eat grapes!)

    I look forward to your wtriting about that. It should be interesting to see what you come up with.

    By the way, I really enjoy your columns. Nice change for SJI!

  3. Sr. Chavez was a very important man in our time, and our locale; indeed our state and all parts of the nation where he protested valiantly against the exploitation of agricultural workers.  I certainly hope that there will be some interprative sites/placques to educate San Jose residents and visitors alike about this life-changing man who once made his home here.  The world would be a far better place if we could have cloned him.

  4. There are a number of interesting things to see along that stretch of Santa Clara St., but most of them are not particularly related to Cesar Chavez.

    Maybe they should broaden the concept of the walk so there would be some things to look at in the middle.

    It’s the same kind of problem as when people were talking about setting up a “Little Italy” a while back. There are some old-time Italian places still in existence, but they are spread out all over the place.

  5. I’ve been thinking more about this topic and I think if the tribute were to be broadened it would make the most sense to include other sites associated with the labor movement.

    In the 1930s the canneries were the biggest question. Cannery workers were mostly Italian, Portuguese and Mexican in national origin. (East Santa Clara St. is the old Portuguese neighborhood.)

    In 1931 the canneries reduced wages by 20%, causing a spontaneous strike. Rallies took place in St. James Park. Union organizers moved in.

    The Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union had its headquarters at 81 Post Street. The Labor Temple (72 N. Second St., long gone, but there is a historical marker there) played its part also.

    I’m not sure of the location of the Richmond Case Cannery, where machine guns were set up to intimidate the strikers.

    The Communist Party had some involvement in the labor movement at this time, although only a tiny handful of people were actually Communists. A few years later Moscow decided that American union organizers were unreliable and not suited to be comrades.

    Salinas and Stockton saw the most violent confrontations during this period, seeing the CHP conspire with industry-sponsored private militias and death squads. San Jose is lucky not to have many historical sites of this type.

    Clyde Arbuckle’s history is silent on these topics. Too controversial, I suppose.

    Field workers were not addressed by the labor movement in this period. In the 1930s they were mostly Okies. In the late 1930s and 1940s they became mostly Latino. The Chavez family arrived here in 1939.

    The great contribution of Cesar Chavez was to extend the concept of union representation to the field workers. He was assisted by some people from these earlier struggles.

    Another person who might be included is Larry Itilong, who represented the Filipino farmworkers and worked along with Cesar Chavez. Information about him is difficult to find, so I don’t know if there are any local sites associated with him.

    My idea—let’s set up a second walkway, associated with the cannery workers’ struggle. Naturally it would include the Little Portugal neighborhood that sits in the gap of the Cesar Chavez walkway.

    Since the two walkways would overlap, a combined walk would pay tribute to both Cesar Chavez and the union members of the 1930s, and also fill in the big gap in the walkway.

    References:
    Organizing Women Cannery Workers in California’s Santa Clara Valley in the 1930’s
    http://calcultures.ucsd.edu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=38&Itemid=40

    http://www.historysanjose.org/cannerylife/through-the-years/1917-1966/unions.html

    Kevin Starr, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, (1996)
    http://www.cerritos.edu/soliver/History 120 – 2007/lm3/fall2005/LM3_f2006/starr_red.htm