The longstanding Black and Latino populations of Santa Monica now have two new holidays officially recognized by the City that commemorate their communities’ contributions to American history: Juneteenth and Cesar Chavez Day.

Juneteenth has been celebrated by Black Americans since 1865 and became a federal holiday in 2021, while Cesar Chavez Day has been celebrated in California since 1995. As part of the City’s ongoing efforts to include and uplift residents of all races, City Council unanimously passed a motion on March 15 declaring them both as official holidays, meaning that all City facilities and programs will close on those days in observance.

Cesar Chavez Day will heretofore be recognized by the City on the last Monday of March (March 28 this year), and Juneteenth will be recognized on June 19 (June 20 this year as June 19 falls on a Sunday).

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, a native Santa Monican who has long been a voice for the rights, recognition and inclusion of Latino residents, expressed joy at this motion.

During the Council meeting he fondly recounted the day in 1990 when he alongside around 300 Santa Monica High School students staged a walkout from fifth period to join Cesar Chavez at a picket to support farmworkers in front of the Loews Hotel. According to de la Torre, a year later he met Chavez while attending Chico State University and Chavez expressed great gratitude for the students of Santa Monica who showed up that day as the picket was initially very sparsely attended.

“He (Cesar Chavez) goes ‘when you guys showed up you guys saved the day.’ He goes ‘you all were like angels, when you turned the corner, it was like a prayer was answered’,” said de la Torre. “The students from Santa Monica High School from all different backgrounds really made history that day and it was very, very powerful.”

De la Torre also said he was proud to be able to vote to celebrate Juneteenth and acknowledged 65 year Santa Monica resident Laverne Ross for her role in bringing the celebration to Santa Monica.

Ross, who moved to Santa Monica in 1957 when she was 15 years old, established the City’s first ever Juneteenth celebration in 1992 as she had grown up celebrating the holiday in her home state of Texas and was sad it wasn’t recognized locally. Since then a Juneteenth celebration has taken place in Santa Monica every year, with the exception of the pandemic years when the celebration took place virtually.

Juneteenth recognizes June 19, 1865 when Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that all slaves were free. Although President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, the news had not yet reached many slaves in the deep south who had continued to toil in servitude.

Cesar Chavez day is a comparatively newer holiday, which recognizes the work of the influential Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist Cesario Estrada Chavez. Chavez lived from 1927 to 1993 and helped improve the lives and working conditions of millions of Latino farm workers nationwide through union organizing.

Clara@smdp.com