General Dynamics NASSCO has been building a series of Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships in San Diego. The last of the fourteen built will be named after Cesar Chavez, the late civil rights and labor leaders. James Gill, a NASSCO spokesman said, “We suggested the name Cesar Chavez for the ship because we’re in Barrio Logan and want to be good neighbors, and we want to show respect for our workers.”
The cargo ships were built for use by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. All of NASSCO’s ships have been named after explorers or people who were pioneers in their respective fields. The names of the other 13 ships are: Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Alan Shephard, Richard E. Byrd, Robert E. Peary, Amelia Earhart, Carl Brashear, Wally Schirra, Matthew Perry, Charles Drew, Washington Chambers, William McLean, and Medgar Evers.
The newest vessel, now named Cesar Chavez, is the first in this line to be named after a Mexican-American. Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona in 1927 and died in San Luis, Arizona in 1993, at the age of 66. Members of the Chavez family are expected to attend the formal ship dedication ceremony held by NASSCO this afternoon.
However, the Navy’s decision to name the ship after Cesar Chavez has sparked controversy especially sharp criticism from one veteran lawmaker who argues that a military war hero should receive the honor instead of Chavez. Duncan Hunter asserts that he understands the Navy’s desire to honor Hispanic leaders and community but says that the Navy may want to skip politically divisive names and opt for an outstanding service member. Hunter suggests that the Navy is paying too much attention to politics and not enough to tradition. “This decision shows the direction the Navy is heading,” Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in his statement. “Naming a ship after Cesar Chavez goes right along with other recent decisions by the Navy that appears to be more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy’s history and tradition.”
Hunter, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Reserve lieutenant in the Marines said, “If this decision were about recognizing the Hispanic community’s contribution to our nation, many other names come to mind, including Marine Corps Sergeant Rafael Peralta. Peralta is one of many Hispanic war heroes–some of whom are worthy of the same recognition.”
Peralta was 25 when he died in a battle in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004. After he was shot in the head by friendly fire, he pulled a grenade lobbed by an insurgent under his body before it detonated. Peralta was nominated for the Medal of Honor for sacrificing his life in order to save the lives of his fellow comrades.
Chavez, although famous for helping to secure a U.S. law that recognized farmworkers’ rights to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining, also served in the Navy, enlisted in 1944. “In 1944 he joined the Navy at the age of seventeen,” his official biography on the United Farm Workers website says. “He served two years and in addition to discrimination, he experienced strict regimentation.”
In response to the disagreement, Marc Grossman, who was a close aide for Chavez for 24 years said, “You know, that’s life. He’s entitled to his opinion.” He believes the labor leader would have been uncomfortable with the honor but he feels it is well deserved. “He was always uncomfortable being singled out for praise because he knew there were many César Chávezes — farmworkers who made great sacrifices and accomplished great things but who were unknown. So the Chávez family today acknowledges this honor in the name of all Latinos who have built this country and served this country in the armed services. Cesar served two years in the U.S. Navy immediately after the war and was honorably discharged, so that speaks for himself,” said Grossman.
Senator Barbara Boxer praised the Navy for naming the ship after Chavez, saying it was a “fitting tribute.” “I applaud Secretary Mabus for continuing the Navy’s rich tradition of naming these supply ships after pioneers, explorers and visionaries by honoring Cesar Chavez, who worked tirelessly to promote fair working conditions and equal rights for all Americans,” she said in a statement.
Even some proponents of Cesar Chavez are questioning the Navy’s choice of his name. “We’re talking about a person who believed in nonviolence — the absolute core belief was nonviolence,” said Randy Shaw in San Francisco, where he is the executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Shaw also is the author of “Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century,” published in 2008. “Do you think he would want a military ship named after him?” Shaw asked. “It seems pretty unlikely.”
Company spokeswoman Mary Montgomery said the Chavez name selection has been widely applauded by the General Dynamics Nassco workforce. “Sixty percent of our work force is Hispanic, a very large number of our work force of skilled women and men,” Montgomery said in a telephone interview. The shipyard is in the Barrio Logan area of San Diego, known for its Hispanic heritage. “We’ve had numerous positive comments from members of our work force because Cesar Chavez was such an important figure.” Montgomery said.
The new Cesar Chavez is a T-AKE class ship which will be used to deliver food, ammunition, fuel and other provisions to ships who are in combat and out to sea for both military and humanitarian efforts.