Op-ed: Plaza de Cesar Chavez is the heart of San Jose
San Jose's Plaza de Cesar Chavez hosts Christmas in the Park during the holiday season. Photo by Moryt Milo.

At the heart of San Jose sits Plaza de Cesar Chavez, a site that for more than two centuries has  come to shape the city that grew around it.

But with the explosive growth downtown experienced over the past 20 years, and with new residential and commercial towers continually reshaping its skyline, we must move quickly to beautify the plaza in the short run. We must also develop a comprehensive plan for the park’s future—a plan that seeks to further develop the city’s cultural identity and attract visitors that are so vital to the success of the businesses that have invested in San Jose. Central to that planning effort should be the goal of honoring the park’s namesake, civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, and further ingraining his legacy onto the city he called home.

Once the city’s political epicenter, Plaza de Cesar Chavez sits atop California’s first state capitol  and was the home of San Jose City Hall for 70 years. Today, it serves as a cultural and economic  hub, with its events attracting nearly 1 million visitors to downtown San Jose every year.

The plaza’s centrality, both geographically within the city and historically to its identity, underscores the significance of its rededication 30 years ago in the name of the iconic labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. After long having marginalized the Latino community, city leaders welcomed in one of its greatest sons, renaming the city’s heart to honor Cesar’s legacy of activism in the fight for economic and social justice.

For the Chavez family, Plaza de Cesar Chavez has stood as an enormous source of pride, but also as an ongoing responsibility to honor Cesar’s legacy and make his tireless efforts and the struggles of those for whom he fought relevant for generations to come. As part of fulfilling that responsibility, our hope is to create a new chapter in the park’s living history and reach beyond preservation to give the park more beauty, to enhance the space as a vibrant, living testament to Cesar’s fight for justice.

A master plan will establish a critical road map to boosting the value and vibrancy of Plaza de Cesar Chavez. Public art installations and sculptures should be incorporated to inspire reflection  and provide visitors with a deeper understanding of the struggles that led to the plaza’s rededication and the ongoing fight for social justice in our community, our country and throughout the world.

We should explore building new amenities, such as a well-curated memorial or museum to serve as an educational center, chronicling Chavez’s life and the broader history of labor and civil rights movements. Other proposals, like the Breeze of Innovation art installation, can also be studied as part of the master planning process. We should explore opportunities to enlarge the park’s footprint. And we should prioritize replacing the existing stage with a modern one to provide a better experience for organizations that host  events at the plaza that serve our broad community in a meaningful way.

As with everything in the public sphere, process is important. The plaza’s master planning process should embody the values Cesar championed—inclusivity, equity and justice. It must foster community, education and cultural celebration while encouraging public action to drive positive changes in our society. This should be a city-led process with a defined schedule and include broad community representation by those with the best interests of the plaza and city at heart.

As we envision the future of Plaza de Cesar Chavez, let us commit to preserving Cesar Chavez’s legacy in a way that not only honors his memory, but also catalyzes positive change within our community. By investing in enhancements that celebrate his ideals and promote social justice, we can ensure Plaza de Cesar Chavez remains a beacon of inspiration and a testament to the enduring power of collective action for the betterment of the community.

As Cesar would say,  “Si, se puede.”

Rita Chavez Medina is a founding board member of Chavez Family Vision and sister of Cesar Chavez. Gabriel Medina is president of Chavez Family Vision and grand nephew of Cesar Chavez. Andres Chavez is executive director of the National Chavez Center, an executive team member of the Cesar Chavez Foundation and grandson of Cesar Chavez.

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