YAKIMA, Wash. — Beatrice Tlachi wasn’t yet born when labor leader Cesar Chavez began his drive for farm worker rights more than a half-century ago.

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But the 19-year-old college student wanted to be part of a march and celebration of Chavez’s life and work on Saturday.

She and some friends from Pasco were among more than 200 people who marched through downtown Yakima and participated in the celebration that concluded with a program at The Seasons Performance Hall on North Naches Avenue. About 40 people were waiting at The Seasons, where the one-hour march concluded.

“He was a person who was dedicated and never gave up,” Tlachi, a University of Washington sophomore, said prior to the noon march. “He was like us, Hispanic and low-income. For him to have worked on the farms and to become a leader is empowering and a motivation to us.”

Born in 1927 in Arizona, Chavez formed a workers union in 1962 that later became the United Farm Workers Union.

Many of the participants in Saturday’s march carried the red UFW flag as well as signs calling for support for immigration reform, an issue that is gaining strength in Congress.

Jorge Valenzuela, the union’s Pacific Northwest regional director, said the event carried a dual purpose: to remember the late labor leader’s legacy around the time of his March 31 birthday and to emphasize the need for immigration reform.

“We are continuing to fight for social justice and human rights,” he said.

Valenzuela added the union is negotiating with agriculture organizations on the terms of a new immigration system that would provide a path to citizenship. The issue is no more important than in Central Washington, where an estimated 70 percent of the agricultural work force lacks legal documents.

“You have to be concerned about that. Washington state is so dependent on agriculture and so dependent on farm worker families to perform the work,” he said.

Alex Santillanes of Yakima, executive director of Yakima Valley Barrios Unidos, one of the groups that sponsored the event, also emphasized the need for immigration reform.

“This is so the young people don’t have to live in the shadows,” he said.

Santillanes also said the group is working for inclusion of instruction about the life of Chavez in the public school curriculum and to gain recognition for Chavez through the naming of parks, streets and schools.

Phyllis Gutiérrez Kenney, who retired early this year after 16 years in the Washington Legislature, was the keynote speaker for the program at The Seasons following the march.

Kenney said prior to the march that she grew up in a migrant farmworker family. Born in Montana, she was raised in the Wapato-Toppenish area. Each of her seven siblings was born in different states as the family followed the migrant trail.

“Cesar Chavez left a legacy that says we have to work together and that each individual needs respect and dignity,” she said.

• David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or dlester@yakimaherald.com.