Cesar Chavez Drive dedicated

Bella Vista sixth-grade teacher Ann Corsey, left, hugs her former student and current Gattis Junior High seventh-grader Tanya Romero after the dedication of the new Cesar Chavez street sign. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: Freedom Newspapers

It is the lesson of a lifetime: Si, se puede — yes, we can. Believing this turned a classroom of pre-teens into community heroes.

Evidence of their feat was unveiled on a clear Friday morning — a green street sign, with white letters. It reads Cesar Chavez Drive.

“That’s our work up there,” said Daniel Trujillo, 12, shooting his arm toward the sign, embedded in the ground near a cacti patch.

They had some ups and downs trying to get the name of the street change to honor the legendary migrant labor leader, according to Phillip Martinez, also 12. But the former Bella Vista Elementary sixth graders are victors. After more than a year of lobbying city and school officials, the class, now junior high school students, got the name of a neighborhood street changed from Jefferson to Cesar Chavez.

“We went a long way — for just being kids. Now adults can look up to us,” Martinez said.

Teacher Anne Corsey introduced the students to Cesar Chavez — a Mexican-American labor leader who demanded rights for migrant farm workers after years of picking crops for low wages — because she wanted to give them “someone to look up to.” Corsey, who is relatively new to the education field, spent most her life raising her children at home, but the profession fits well: Students cling to her side; fellow teachers shower her with praise.

“Cesar Chavez taught us what it is to have pride, responsibility and dignity in everything we do,” said sixth-grade class president Elena Montoya, her dark hair swept into a ponytail. “Two students came up with the brilliant idea of changing the street name. And then we got creative.”

The students went to the Clovis school board twice. The first time the board denied their request to change the name of the street where their school is located. “That was a low point. But I asked the kids,” Corsey said, “did Cesar Chavez always hear ‘yes’ when he asked for something?”

When the school board approved the change — after the students approached them a second time — they got approval from city planners and commissioners.

City commissioner Robert Sandoval and Paul Chavez, a California resident and the grandson of Cesar Chavez, officially dismantled the Jefferson street sign Friday morning by tearing off the white paper that covered the new sign. The mayor of Clovis declared Friday Cesar Chavez Day within the city.

“We didn’t really know what Jefferson did,” said Vernon Hunter, 13, leaning against a neighborhood car underneath the street sign. “We just knew he was a president. Cesar Chavez inspired people who were down.”

For many of the neighborhood kids, the change signals a field of opportunity, Bella Vista staff said. Signs of poverty abounded in the surrounding Bella Vista blocks. A van window is covered with a black plastic bag; the adobe houses are small and compact; the streets are lined with sedans. The area is socio-economically depressed, said Bella Vista speech pathologist Cindy Wall.

The street change sends an especially important message to the school’s mostly Hispanic and African-American students.

“Their voices made a difference,” Wall said.