By Maria E. Garcia
The general public knew Peter Chacón as a California State Assemblyman who served from 1970-1992. Very few know or understand what Pete’s election meant to the Latino community.
From the time I was a small child I remember my parents going inside a building to vote. They would take turns voting as we sat in the car. One parent would go inside to vote while the other parent would care for us. Then the reverse would occur. Voting was always a special activity and in many ways a mystery.
This all changed for me the night Peter Chacón was elected in November of 1969. Pete’s victory taught us that voting does make a difference. His election gave us hope that we could change our future by participating in the electoral process. As we rode in the elevator at the Holiday Inn at the Embarcadero, we were hugging, laughing and probably more excited than onlookers could understand.
The elevator was packed with activists from the Chicano community. I remember the late José Gómez, a member of the Chicano Park steering committee and barrio activist saying he had never been in a glass elevator. It was obvious that the ride was making him nervous and yet he was smiling and joking around.
The celebratory atmosphere would continue into the night. Yes, it was about Pete winning the election but it was much more than that– it was hope, it was pride, it was excitement and a new belief that we could be and were part of the political system.
If you’re from the Anglo community you are used to seeing people that look like you elected to political office.
If you’re from the Anglo community you are used to seeing people that look like you elected to political office. However in 1970’s San Diego there was not one Latino in office and certainly not one elected to represent San Diego in the California Legislature. Places such as New Mexico and Texas had Latinos elected to State office, but conservative San Diego did not.
In 1960 there had been support from the Latino community to elect an African American, George Walker Smith, to the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education. In 1969 the two communities would unite again, to support Leon Williams to win a seat on the San Diego City Council. The general agreement between the two communities was that when a Latino ran for office the African American community would support whomever the community put forth.
As it turned out that person was Peter Chacón. Peter worked for San Diego City Schools and had been one of the founding members of the Chicano Federation. He had served as Chairman of the first appointed Chicano Federation Board. He was well respected in the Latino community and was seen as a leader. His decision to run for office could not have been an easy one.
In order to have the necessary financial resources needed to run for a political office, he and Jean sold their home. Many of those working to elect Peter were college students who had never worked on an election campaign. What we did have was a willingness to work and the naiveté that it was doable.
Peter was one of the five original members of the Chicano Caucus formed in 1973. Today the Chicano Caucus is referred to as the Latino Legislative Caucus and is considered one of the most influential organizations in the State Legislature.
I don’t remember phone banks. I checked with Delia Talamántez, who had also worked on that first campaign and she confirmed that there were no phone banks. I remember many of us walking door to door. I also remember Pete and Jean walking door to door. They were often accompanied by one or more of their sons. The family brought a respectability to his campaign.
Jean Chacón deserves a lot of recognition not only as his spouse but for the way she interacted with the public and for providing a warm and loving home for the family. Pete was smart, honest, sincere and educated. His win was a victory not only for Pete but also for the Latino community. Latino organizations would contact Pete and ask that he make a phone call in support of an issue that was being discussed in our community. An Assemblyman calling had a great deal more influence than a regular citizen.
Peter was one of the five original members of the Chicano Caucus formed in 1973. Today the Chicano Caucus is referred to as the Latino Legislative Caucus and is considered one of the most influential organizations in the State Legislature. It has grown from five members to twenty four members. Even though we are still underrepresented, evidence of our progress can be seen in the increase of its members.
Over the years, Pete sponsored significant legislation that would benefit all Californians. His work on behalf of senior citizens, veterans, the foster child system and AIDS patients are well known. His concern for urban development and housing are a part of his contributions. However, without a doubt, it is his support of bilingual education that has had the most influence in our community.
In 1973 Pete sponsored AB 2284. This was the first piece of state legislation that pertained to funding school districts for services provided to English Language Learners (ELL’s) . This legislation allowed districts to apply for funds to develop bilingual programs. Many of the teachers hired between 1972 and 1985 can thank Pete for the opportunity it gave them to be hired as bilingual teachers.
In 1976 AB 1329, also known as the Chacon Moscone Bilingual-Bicultural Education Act, was passed. This was the first state legislation act that mandated school districts provide language minority students with equal educational opportunities despite their limited proficiency in English. In 1980 AB 507 (Bilingual Education Improvement Reform Act) was passed and mandated that districts provide bilingual instruction for every Limited English proficient student in California.
Unfortunately in 1987 then California Governor Deukmejian allowed AB 1329 to sunset (lapse). Some districts continued to provide bilingual education, however the repeal weakened the legislative mandate for bilingual education in California. Peter was often referred to as the grandfather or father of bilingual education.
In 1992 Peter Chacón retired having improved the lives of Latinos throughout the State of California. His commitment to bilingualism continued after his retirement. While living at Fredericka Manor, Pete and Jean taught Spanish to many of the English speaking seniors.
In 2003 the 5th Annual Biliteracy Celebration Symposium held in San Diego honored Pete with a Leadership in Biliteracy Award. This award was the San Diego County education community’s way of saying thank you to Peter. Peter was surrounded by his family.
Having witnessed not only the presentation but the reaction of the audience to this recognition, many of the young teachers, who were not even born when Peter sponsored the first bilingual bill, thanked him and asked for his autograph. The San Diego education community was saying thank you to the man who brought us bilingual education.
Mil gracias por el tiempo, el apoyo el sacrificio y la esperanza que nos dio.
Dr. Albert Ochoa offers these additional reflections: Peter Chacón as an assemblyman and educator was a pioneer in defending the linguistic rights of children and the right to bilingual and bi-cultural education. He worked to pass educational biliteracy legislation that to the present has impacted millions of children in California whose first language is not English. California became known for its bilingual programs because of the advocacy of Assemblymen Chacón.
At the federal level he was a leader in responding to the federal Supreme Court Decision under Lau vs Nichols in 1974 and the Educational Opportunity Act of 1974 that call for equal access to education. In so doing he pushed to establish educational programs with a focus on bi-literacy that have led to the development of multilingualism in many school communities in our state and nation.
He was also involved in school finance, working to actualize the Serrano Decisions of 1970 calling for equitable funding to low-income school communities that presently has led to the California Local Control Funding Formula.
Peter Chacón was a man of vision and committed to low income children and youth.
From Dr. Edward (Lalo) Aceves, Retired Principal Chula Vista School District thoughts about Pete: …Memories of Pete Chacón take me back to late 1960’s and early 70’s. There were surprised looks on most of our faces, as various Chicano educators met one afternoon in a conference room at the San Diego City Schools Education Center. These “looks of surprise” were a result of Pete Chacón telling us that he would be running for Assemblyman in the California State Assembly. He conveyed this information with a look of confidence and perseverance.
“You’re a Vice Principal, Pete. What do you know about politics?” was one of the questions that we asked him. He explained, quite succinctly, that “what he didn’t know about politics, he would LEARN.” And that was the beginning of this man’s quest for a more meaningful educational effectiveness for the children in our schools—especially the need to better the plight of the Latino, Spanish-speaking child.
As a Vice Principal, he saw his educational effect a bit limited—he wanted to get to the State “decision center”– the legislature of California. We (mostly Latino educators who were conferencing that day) had a hearty laugh and joked about his decision—but, Pete DIDN’T laugh. The Yellow Cab Scandal in San Diego came and went, taking with it any strong competition that Pete might have to face. He won the election and went on to lend his expertise, perseverance and confidence to the lawmakers of the State. The rest is history.
This man, Pete, won the admiration of all of us. He went on to make quite an IMPACT on the lawmaking members of the Assembly, as well as towards the Spanish-speaking Latino children within the schools of California. “Our Pete” left a legacy for our educational systems in the State to ponder and to institute. “Bilingual Education” was, soon after his election, on the minds and tongues of those educators dealing with the education of Spanish-speaking students in our State– and Pete helped to place it there. Thank you, Pete—you served our children well.
Rosalía Salinas, former Senior Director Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment San Diego County Office of Education,past President of the California Association of Bilingual Education (CABE) sends her thoughts: Pete brought to the legislature the educational expertise, the deep understanding of the community to create change. His bilingual education legislation created the context for English Learners to thrive.
Paul Chacón, son of Peter Chacón: Thank you all for your outpouring of love and support for my family. My father gave so much of his heart to so many without measure or end. During his last days, while in hospice care at Nazareth House, my father had all four of his sons around him and we were reading Psalms to him, praying with him and singing church songs that moved his heart. He asked me if I thought he’s been a good father and I could only answer with tears in my eyes that he had been an awesome father. In fact, he was so much more than that to me, he was my mentor, my role model and my hero. I’ve told my (23) year old son, Pete Chacon, that if he becomes half the man my father was, he will have made me very proud.
Please come join us at the memorial service which will be held at the San Diego Church of Christ meeting at Lewis Middle School at 5170 Greenbrier Avenue, SD, CA 92120. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (619) 318-3651 with questions or for more information.
Chris Chacón, son of Peter Chacón: Thank you for your love. During the years of my dad’s service and in the decades following I continue to hear from this person or that one who has the same basic comment, that he was for the people. He was always other focused beginning with his immediate family, devoted to his mom like his siblings were and for a lifetime, devoted to his extended family, bringing nephews and nieces to their home in the Vista, then Coronado and then Placerville so they could enjoy a less citified experience. They took in a 13 year old girl for a year from the neighboring impoverished reservation and she went on to have a stable adult life.
I love hearing about what he did as a teacher, a vice principal and as an Assemblyman. Any further stories you have are welcome. His life long focus was his devotion to God, to his wife and family, to those he could help and the deep humility to work on being better particularly whenever anyone told him he could do better at this or that.
He also had a huge heart for the homeless. I drove him to the mariachi mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe (9 am every 2nd and 4th Sunday) which we both loved. Last year I drove through downtown, 16th Street. His response was more intense than I’d thought. In his semi Alzheimer’s state his response was profound. He was deeply shaken to see hundreds of tents and homeless people living on our sidewalks. Fortunately, with help from family and friends he regrouped in a day. However, he taught me by his response, that, really, that is the reaction we should have to this terrible situation.
We welcome you to come to his service Saturday 1/24 11 am at Lewis Middle School. We believe he is in heaven with mom basking in the glory of God. Your comments have moved us. Thank you.
Editor Note: This article has been updated to include additional comments. The comments from Paul and Chris Chacón were cross-posted from a prior article Remembering Peter “Pete” Chacon.