Members of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Atzlan are launching a petition this week asking Congress to create a national holiday honoring labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez.

The effort is part of a campaign by MEChA chapters across the country to push for a House bill calling on state legislatures to establish the holiday, MEChA Social Action Chair Edgar Diaz-Machado ’09 said. The groups will give their petitions to the United Farm Workers — formerly known as the National Farm Workers Association, which Chavez helped found — to be consolidated and presented to members of Congress, Diaz-Machado said.

The March 31 holiday — marking Chavez’s birthday — would help raise awareness of the work Chavez did in organizing farm laborers and fighting for immigrant and Latino civil rights, Diaz-Machado said. In the Latino community, he said, Chavez is a civil rights leader of the same stature as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Robert F. Kennedy.

“A lot of people just don’t know who he is or what the struggle was,” he said. “So we see this as being along the lines of informing people … Even in states where Chavez did all his work, it is not observed, and we see that as disrespectful.”

Both California and Texas observe Chavez’s birthday as a holiday, and two other states — Arizona and Colorado — recognize it as an optional holiday.

If Congress does pass the bill, Diaz-Machado said, MEChA will celebrate the holiday with a day of action featuring boycotts, protests or community service meant to highlight Chavez’s career work.

MEChA, a Mexican-American student organization, will gather signatures this week and over the weekend before sending the final list to the UFW next week, Diaz-Machado said. He said he has not gauged student support enough to know how many signatures the group can expect to collect.

MEChA Political Action Chair Benjamin Gonzalez ’09 said he is optimistic about the bill’s chance of passage, given that there are student groups working to gather signatures not just on the two coasts, which tend to be liberal, but also in more conservative regions like the South, where there are large numbers of agricultural workers.

“I’m pretty confident because this is not just a sparse little campaign,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll get it this year. But by next year I think there’s a good chance because it will be on more people’s minds — and not just Latinos, but people of all backgrounds.”

The group will use fliers, mass e-mails, a Facebook group and tabling outside residential college dining halls in order to collect signatures for the petitions, Gonzalez said. He said a Cesar Chavez day would also bring increased attention to other causes Chavez championed, such as the feminist movement and Chicanismo, which seeks to help Mexican-Americans recapture their native Mexican culture.

Diaz-Machado said MEChA would lobby the University to cancel classes on March 31 if Congress or the Connecticut legislature establishes a holiday honoring Chavez.

Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said she had not heard of the movement to create a holiday in Chavez’s memory and is unsure whether Yale would add another day off to its calendar.

“It took a long time for the country and the University to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday,” she said. “I don’t know enough to give a considered answer.”

Chavez began his work as a civil-rights leader with the Community Services Organization in 1952 and later helped found the NFWA with Dolores Huerta. He gained national attention in 1966 when he led striking California grape-pickers on a march from Delano to the state capitol in Sacramento as part of a demand for higher wages. Chavez died in 1993.