Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Embracing Chavez Blvd.

Naming Rites

If you were asked to prioritize all of the issues that can be appropriately addressed by the Portland City Council, where would you place renaming a street after Cesar Chavez?

Yeah, me too. It definitely wouldn’t crack the top ten. I suspect a significant number of Latinos actually feel the same way, considering the unemployment rate, high cost of housing, decreased funding for public schools and shabby state of public parks. Nevertheless, the issue is not only on the table, it’s jumping up and down and demanding attention like a four-year-old who didn’t get dessert.

Not that I’m opposed to renaming a street after Cesar Chavez. In fact, I have the perfect street in mind. It’s not 39th Ave., nor Broadway, nor Grand Ave. all of which have been suggested. No, it’s Glisan Street. Glisan is one of the longest and most culturally diverse streets in all of Portland—and even stretches out to the eastern edge of the city where most Latinos live.

Besides that, no one pronounces Glisan correctly. Named after Rodney Glisan, an early Oregon physician who married into wealth, it is supposed to be pronounced like “glisten.” Instead, it’s commonly pronounced “glee-son.” No one knows why, exactly, though many believe this pronunciation emerged after World War II when a James Gleason was a prominent politician in Portland.

The right way to do it would be to keep it Glisan St. on the west side of the Willamette, because the streets go in alphabetical order in Northwest Portland. (The one that starts with “C” is Couch, named after the famous naval captain who owned much of that part of town—and whose daughter Glisan married). But on the east side of the river, name it Chavez. It’s certainly not unusual for streets to vanish at the banks of the river. For example, from the west, you approach the Morrison Bridge on Alder St., but come off it on Belmont St., which is only on the east side.

No matter which street is renamed, people are going to protest it. Businesses particularly get upset with street renaming, citing the cost of changing stationary, business cards and advertising. That’s small change compared to the gain businesses could see were their street to become Chavez Boulevard.

With the economy scraping bottom, businesses need to take advantage of every opportunity. The Latino community in Portland is growing—and also growing more affluent. For the most part, this is a culture with strong family values that also aspires to own all the trappings of the American middle class. It’s a market that is ignored only by the smug and foolish.

Savvy merchants, restaurateurs and barkeeps should lobby for the name change, and then post banners and signs saying “We are proud to be part of the street honoring Cesar Chavez.”

And then make sure they can speak Spanish.


  1. Interesting post. I'll never be able to pronounce "Glisan" the conventional way again without reservations!

    I agree about the wisdom of catering to the Spanish-speaking market, though don't see the necessity of speaking Spanish, nice as that may be.

    For the record, I think the "strong family values" of Latinos is an overstatement bordering on myth.

    As strong as the family ethos may be in some traditional communities in Latin America (I stress "some") this demographic group is among the worst when it comes to disintegration of families as measured by teenage pregnancy, out-of-wedlock birth and the consequences these cause.

  2. Portland Development Commissioner Berta Ferran, probably a principle source of the bad advice that former mayor Tom Potter has been getting, spoke at the City Council hearing.

    Ms Ferran identified herself as a Cuban refugee, speaking as a private citizen...now it starts to get complicated….

    Ms Ferran: “Cesar Chavez is not just a Latino leader, he is an American hero.”

    As Treasurer and a Board member of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Ms Ferran had to parse her words very carefully….


    Although Cesar Chavez has been often described as a Hispanic or Hispanic American, the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and its 618 member businesses have stayed completely away from the street renaming debate, indicating that the Chavez Boulevard Committee is on its own, as far as Hispanics are concerned, and that none of its member businesses desire to be located on a street named Chavez….


    This would have been an important clarifying question to raise, may have settled for some the confusion between Latino and Hispanic communities, and might have offered a measurement of how little support the Chavez Boulevard Committee actually has once removed from the City Hall insiders who have driven this issue down our throats for the past two years....