SAN DIEGO – Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on Wednesday said it was an honor to name the last of 14 Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships after the late farm worker activist Cesar Chavez — pointing out that the vessels recognize American pioneers and visionaries who changed the country and the world for the better.
Mabus also praised the mostly Latino workforce attending Wednesday's ceremony at the San Diego shipyard where the boat is being built, saying "because of what you do, you make our Navy stronger and our America more secure."
General Dynamics NASSCO officials had suggested the name to the Navy to honor its employees and Barrio Logan, the mostly Latino neighborhood where the ship builder is located on San Diego's waterfront. The decision irked California's Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, who said it seemed political and that a military war hero should have been picked.
Mabus declined to specifically comment on Hunter's remarks, saying only that Chavez's life of achievements explain why he was chosen. More than a dozen U.S. senators, including Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Harry Reid of Nevada, praised the secretary in a letter for the choice. The other 13 ships were named after notable Americans like civil rights leader Medgar Evers and aviator Amelia Earhart.
"It is clear that Cesar Chavez is a fitting namesake for this fourteenth and final ship," said the letter, which was provided to The Associated Press by Boxer's office. "Any comments to the contrary reflect a total disregard for Cesar Chavez, who deserves our respect and gratitude for the lifetime he spent promoting the fair treatment of workers and equal rights and justice for all Americans."
Chavez mobilized tens of thousands of migrant workers, launched nationwide grape boycotts and marched across California to force growers and U.S. lawmakers to recognize the rights of the mostly immigrant laborers. He is credited with pushing through passage of a U.S. law that allowed farm workers to unionize.
His non-violent movement helped to end discriminatory practices against Latinos beyond California's fields, Mabus said.
"His example will live through this ship," he told the crowd gathered in front of the beginnings of the ship, which will be completed next May. "It will continue to inspire Americans to do what's right."
He added that the ship will sail around the world assisting people "acting a lot like its U.S. namesake."
"Everywhere it goes the story of Cesar Chavez will spread and the words 'si se puede' (yes you can!) will echo around the world," Mabus said.
Chavez's son, Paul, who attended the ceremony with other relatives, said his family acknowledges "this great honor" that recognizes his father's tireless work in making sure the nation kept its promise as a "beacon of equality and freedom."
Chavez served two years in the Navy, joining in 1946. His son said they were difficult years because of the segregation in the armed forces at the time. When he returned after being deployed to Japan, Chavez was not allowed to sit in a middle row of a theater.
Now more than 65 years later, he said, "who would have believed the Navy in which he served would turn around and honor him with this ship. So we're very honored."
Hunter wrote a letter to Mabus on Wednesday, telling him that the Navy should have named the ship after the U.S. Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, a San Diego native who died after smothering a grenade with his body in Iraq in 2004, saving the lives of other Marines. After examining forensic evidence, the Department of Defense determined Peralta did not consciously pull the grenade into his body, and as a result, he was given the Navy Cross instead of the Medal of Honor, Hunter said.
Hunter, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said there was no better choice for naming the ship and that the Navy missed a "valuable opportunity." He urged Mabus to name the next available vessel after Peralta.
NASSCO test engineer Ignacio Gomez, 47, said he was insulted by Hunter's remarks.
"Cesar Chavez served in the Navy just like anybody," said Gomez, who has worked at the ship yard for 20 years. "I think they made the best selection. He was a warrior out there, in all aspects."
Martin Sanchez, 29, said at first he thought it was strange the ship was going to be named after a labor hero and not a military one.
But then he said he started reading about Chavez and it all made sense.
"It's just so inspiring," said Sanchez, who lined up to shake Paul Chavez's hand. "I just have no words for it. It made me feel good. This guy came from nothing and did so much."
He acknowledged that politics probably played into the Navy's decision and that it will likely help President Barack Obama in getting support from the Latino community. But he said that's not a bad thing.
"At this point, he made a lot of Hispanic happy," he said. "It's going to go a long way."