Keene, California: Close to 7,000 people were packed onto the grounds of Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz on Monday morning as President Obama officially dedicated the César E. Chávez National Monument. Backdropped by flags as he stood under a cloudless azure sky, in front of an adobe building that is the centerpiece of the 187-acre compound where César Chávez lived and worked during the last two decades of his life, the President spoke of the legacy and enduring impact of one of his own personal heroes, who forever changed the way farm workers are treated in America. Chávez' legacy on civil rights issues continues today, the President declared.
"Cesar would be the first to say that this is not a monument to one man," President Obama said to cheers and applause. "In the years to come, generations of Americans will stand where we stand and see a piece of history--a tribute to a great man and a great movement."
Before Chavez, “no one seemed to care about the invisible farm workers who picked the nation’s food—bent down in the beating sun, living in poverty, cheated by growers, abandoned in old age, unable to demand even the most basic rights,” President Obama said.
The site was the national headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) as well as the home and workplace of Chávez and his family from the early 1970’s until Chávez' death at 66 in 1993. It includes a Memorial Garden where Chávez is buried. Before his remarks, the President, clad in a dark suit, held the hand of Chávez' widow, Helen Chávez, as he laid a rose on Chávez' grave during a private tour. They were joined by Chávez son, Paul F. Chávez, President of the César E. Chávez Foundation, Dolores Huerta, Co-Founder of the UFW, and Arturo S. Rodriguez, President, UFW.
Many members of the extended Chávez family were on hand for the ceremony, and sat in a special section to the President's right as he spoke. One of Chávez' granddaughters, Julie Chávez Rodriguez, works at the White House as the Associate Director of Latino Affairs and Immigration for the Office of Public Engagement.
"Helen, today we are your guests," President Obama said to Chávez' widow, as he told the story of her husband's achievements. "We appreciate your hospitality, and you should feel free to kick us out whenever you want."
The President's morning trip to the dusty compound where many members of the family still live in a remote mini-valley in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains was a break in a lucrative two-day fundraising sprint through the Golden State. While he was honoring Chávez, Mr. Obama was also getting out the vote from a crucial bloc for the 2012 campaign. Many in the thrilled crowd wore "Obamamanos" t-shirts and campaign buttons. They chanted "Four More Years! Four More Years!" as the President took the stage, waving and smiling, and greeting the crowd in Spanish.
The two Latino members of the President's Cabinet, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, spoke to the crowd ahead of the Commander in Chief. Both touted the President's achievements for Latinos, saying he is fulfilling Chávez' legacy, and reminding that he is responsible for appointing America's first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonya Sotomayor.
"My own call to service was inspired by César Chávez," Salazar (l) told the crowd, adding that some of his family members were organizers in the farm workers' movement. "By designating La Paz as a national monument, President Obama is ensuring that future generations will have a place to learn about this extraordinary man and the farm labor movement that improved the lives of millions of workers."
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also excited the crowd during his remarks, and they responded with shouts of "Si se puede"--the UFW call to action that the President adopted as his 2008 campaign slogan. Los Angeles is more than 100 miles south of the Monument, but Villaraigosa is a national campaign co-chair for the President's re-election effort.
Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was also on hand for the event; she too, is Latino, the President pointed out in his remarks. Oddly missing from an event devoted to honoring the legacy of the man who created the farm worker movement was Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. But he's not Latino...though he has called for immigration reform in light of the fact that some 85% of America's field work is done by undocumented workers, a fact Paul F. Chávez noted in an interview after the President departed.
Even today, despite his father's decades of work, said Chávez, Americans still don't know "the blood, sweat, and despair that goes into the work in the fields."
"I think most people think food grows on the supermarket shelves," said Chávez, adding that he hopes the Monument can help educate Americans and ensure that his father's efforts continue for generations to come. Comprehensive immigration reform could help further balance the scales of social justice, Chávez said, and transform the lives for millions who are already responsible citizens, but left out of society's compact. (Chávez, above)
President Obama did not mention immigration reform during his remarks, although in June he signed an order allowing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to avoid deportation. The other speakers noted this, hailing it as a major win for Latinos.
Instead, the President said that La Paz, like the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon, is a place that can "tell the story of who we are as Americans." As he spoke, he embroidered on his standard campaign speech, promising more efforts in a second Administration to build on Chávez' legacy--especially jobs.
"Today, we have more work to do to fulfill his promise," President Obama said. "The recession we're fighting our way back from is still taking a toll, especially in Latino communities, which already faced higher unemployment and poverty rates. Even with the strides we’ve made, too many workers are still being denied basic rights and simple respect. But thanks to the strength and character of the American people, we are making progress. Our businesses are creating more jobs. More Americans are getting back to work."
He is not bowed by the daunting task, President Obama declared, and compared his efforts to Chávez' work.
"Though we have a difficult road ahead, I know we can keep moving forward together. I know it because César himself worked for 20 years as an organizer without a single major victory--think about that--but he refused to give up."
Asked if he believes immigration reform will be implemented thanks to President Obama if he wins a second term, Paul F. Chávez was optimistic.
"I believe anything is possible, like my father before me," he said, and added "Si, se puede."
California's 55 electoral votes solidly belong to Mr. Obama, but his designation of the Monument is a touchpoint for all Latinos, thanks to Chávez' iconic status. The crowd was filled with families, and busloads of young school students transported to the site from far away.
Rangers from National Park Service locations around California, some from as far away as Yosemite, were also on hand for crowd control and security, patrolling the hills on quads and dirt bikes during the President's visit. Helicopters hovered overhead, and armed sharpshooters were on top of buildings and behind the scrub oaks, black walnut, and pomegranate trees that grow around the campus.
Actress Rosario Dawson was seated front and center in front of the podium as President Obama spoke. She will play Huerta in César, a biopic about Chávez' life. The President honored Huerta with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House earlier this year. Also at the event was actor Michael Pena, who stars in the film as Chávez. Singer and actor Kris Kristofferson performed one of his own songs ahead of the President's remarks, and reminded them to vote for the President. He, too was rewarded with chants of "Four More years!"
The President closed his remarks by quoting a prayer Chávez wrote for farm workers.
"Our world is a better place because Cesar Chávez decided to change it," he said. "Let us honor his memory. But most importantly, let’s live up to his example."
The President led the crowd in more chants of "Si, se puede!" before stepping off the stage. He worked a ropeline, shaking hands for about five minutes--and holding one lucky baby--before he departed in a cloud of red dust in his motorcade.
The Monument is the President's fourth such designation using the Antiquities Act, which allows him to act without waiting for Congress, as he did with the immigration issue. The government now owns two acres of the site, with the rest still belonging to the Chávez family.
Ruben Andrade, a native of Dixon, California, has been named acting superintendent of the Monument. Andrade is the son of farm laborers, and said he worked in the fields during school breaks. He leaves his post as superintendent of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota to oversee La Paz, and said he hopes he will be the permanent superintendent at La Paz. Above, Andrade, right, with Chávez' grandson Andres Chávez, son of Paul F., during a mini National Park passport ceremony outside the visitor's center.
The President stayed at La Paz for a little more than an hour, and then flew to San Francisco for three more fundraisers, where he was scheduled to rake in more than $4.2 million.
The President arrived in Southern California on Sunday, and raised close to $7 million during three fundraisers in Los Angeles, joined by celebrities including George Clooney, Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, and Jon Bon Jovi, as well as by President Bill Clinton and mega-watt donors.
*The transcript of the President's remarks
CLICK HERE for all posts about the President's visit.
César E. Chávez National Monument is located at 29700 Woodford-Tehachapi Road in Keene, California, approximately 30 miles southeast of Bakersfield. The site is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit the César E. Chávez National Monument website at www.nps.gov/cech. (Above: President Obama and Mrs. Chávez at the gravesite)
Other buildings on the La Paz campus will continue to be operated by the United Farm Workers Union, the César Chávez Foundation and the National Chávez Center.
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama; except for top photo and gravesite photo; those are by Pete Souza/White House