Down at the Arroyo Cafe, Romero was telling his friends about his grandfather. The old man had been a farmworker in California in the ’60s and he had met César Chávez.
Romero’s friends were surprised by these stories because they all assumed Romero was from an upper-class family. “The guy wears a tie all the time. You’d think he was one of those ‘Foothills Hispanics,’ ” whispered Rosa, as she poured old Sour Frank a fresh cup of coffee.
Sour Frank gulped a gulp and got on his soapbox. “A César Chávez holiday? Come on, Romero. The city’s in debt up to it’s eyeballs. We can’t afford it. Fill the potholes first, then we’ll have a Chávez parade.”
Down at the end of the counter Lurleen put down her e-cigarette. “They named a salad after the man. What more do you people want?” Lurleen was not a Fulbright scholar.
Romero rolled his eyes. “You people? Did you just say, ‘You people’? Ay, chihuahua.”
“A holiday? Another city holiday?” Sour Frank raised his hands in mock surrender. “Can we ignore the fact it’s going to cost a city that’s $31 million in the hole an additional $500,000? Sí se puede!” Frank put his hands down. “Will people call me a racist for pointing that out? Yes, they will.”
Romero shook his head. “Frank, my grandfather worked his whole life in the fields. When Chávez organized the workers way back in the ’60s, The Man said: ‘Not now! We can’t afford it!’ when they asked for a living wage, The Man said: ‘Not now. We can’t afford it!’ and when they fought to get rid of the pesticides that were killing the mi abuelo, what did The Man say?”
Lurleen guessed. “We can’t afford it?”
“Sí! Not now! They can never afford it. My old man had to fight to get toilets on the fields. A little dignity and they ‘couldn’t afford it.’ ”
Carmen stopped picking at her breakfast. “My mom worked the fields. She told us the foremen harassed the women, demanding favors.”
“The pigs!” Lurleen said.
“They still do it.”
Rosa slapped Sour Frank’s bill on the counter. She looked him in the eyes. “My father worked the fields, too, Frankie boy.”
Sour Frank felt cornered. “Hey, I grew up here! I boycotted grapes when I was a kid like everyone else. Lettuce, too! My best friend Tony Celaya was one of them Chicanos. Everything was ‘Viva la Raza’ and ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Boycott this and boycott that’ — but this is now and the city is broke. Where’s the money going to come from? Are the United Farm Workers going to plant a ‘Magic Money Tree’ in some orchard behind City Hall?”
Romero winced and thought Sour Frank just didn’t get it.
Sour Frank went on. “My grandparents came here from Ireland. They worked hard all their lives. They’re buried in a pauper’s cemetery. A mass grave! We’ve all got stories, Romero.”
“Who shows up every St. Patrick’s Day to help you decorate your stupid truck for the parade downtown, Frank? Me, that’s who. He’s your saint. Not mine. What matters is that together, we honor an Arizona hero.”
Sour Frank fished for change. “Chávez was no saint.”
“All men are flawed, amigo. Tucson will have tough times and we’ll have good times. I’m proud that our city said: ‘No matter the cost, we are not going to wait! Not one more day. Not one more year.’ Every big city in this state honors César. Even Phoenix! P-H-O-E-N-I-X. César Chávez is as much a part of Tucson as the sky and the mountains!”
Romero realized that he had raised his voice at his old friend. He felt ashamed that his temper had gotten the better of him.
Romero looked around the diner and saw that it had fallen silent. Everyone was looking at him. He lifted his coffee cup in the direction of Rosa. “Fill it to the brim, por favor.” And then he stood up and turned to face everyone in the diner. He lifted his cup up to salute his friends, especially Sour Frank. In a calm voice, Romero said, “To César Chávez. Salud.”
The Arroyo Cafe answered in one voice, ”Viva Chávez!” Even the old ranch hand, the truck driver, the cop, the burnt-out stripper and the ragged crazy homeless guy.
Sour Frank smiled a slight, pained smile, for his friend, Romero. He thought about Romero’s grandfather, and Rosa, and her father, and Carmen, and her mother, and his own grandparents who died exhausted, in anonymity. Sour Frank stood up next to his old friend. And together, they toasted the memory of César Chávez.