Archived: President Moves to Preserve Chávez Legacy with New National Monument


On Monday, the President Barack Obama traveled to Keene, California to announce the establishment of the César E. Chávez National Monument under the Antiquities Act. The monument, known as Nuestra Sonora Reina de la Paz (Our Lady Queen of Peace), or La Paz, is recognized worldwide for its historic link to civil rights icon César Estrada Chávez and the farm worker movement. The site served as the national headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) as well as the home and workplace of César Chávez and his family from the early 1970’s until Chávez’ death in 1993, and includes his grave site which will also be part of the monument.

From this rural headquarters in the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern County, California, Chávez played a central role in achieving basic worker protections for hundreds of thousands of farm workers across the country, from provision of drinking water and toilets to workers in the fields, to ending forced stoop labor with a short-handled hoe and exposure to dangerous pesticides , and helping establishing basic minimum wages.

The United Farm Workers of America, the César Chávez Foundation and members of César Chavez’s family donated the properties to the federal government for the purpose of establishing a national monument commemorating César E. Chávez and the farm worker movement. The union headquarters, La Paz, is significant for its role in the 20th century labor, civil rights, Chicano, and environmental movements, and for its association with César Estrada Chávez.

The 187-acre property lies just north of Keene, California.  On it rest 26 historic buildings and structures, as well as the César Chávez Memorial Garden and burial site. La Paz continues to serve the UFW in its struggle to improve farm workers’ subsistence –level earnings and to stop their dying from heat in the fields.

Around 1918, California opened a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients on the Kern County property that La Paz now stands. Over the next fifty years, the county built dormitories, hospitals, a schoolhouse for young patients, and administrative buildings. Around 1967, the sanatorium closed. In 1970, the UFW learned that property was up for public auction in Keene, California. Though the county refused to consider the UFW’s offer to buy it, with Cesar Chavez’s brother Richard as his driver, a wealthy supporter of the new union, a movie producer, visited the property and managed to buy it at auction. The union supporter leased and later sold the property to the UFW. In January 1972, the sanatorium became the UFW headquarters.

César Chávez grew up during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, his family lost their homestead near Yuma, Arizona and traveled to California to become migrant workers, sometimes living out of their car. Like hundreds of thousands of other farm workers, the Chavez family faced low wages and unsafe working conditions. In 1944, Cesar Chávez enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served until his honorable discharge at the end of World War II.

After the war, Chávez returned to California and to migrant agricultural work. He married Helen Fabela and together they had eight children. During the 1950s, Chávez wanted to improve the working conditions of farm workers. He joined the Community Service Organization, but left CSO when the organization refused to focus on the heinous living conditions of rural labor. In 1962, the Chavez family moved to Delano, California, and with his wife Helen, his brother Richard, Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla, founded the forerunner to the United Farm Workers of America. The new union participated in the Delano table-grape workers strike of 1965, which Filipino farm workers initially led, and his contribution to Mexican-American and Filipino-American unity during the strike is part of his legacy. In 1966, the organized farm workers purchased 40 undeveloped acres in Delano and built a labor community there from the ground-up, Forty Acres, the headquarters of the newly-formed United Farm Workers Organizing Committee before the organization moved to Keene in 1972.

As president of the UFW, Chávez helped the organization build La Paz to create a peaceful refuge and homes for the farm workers and supporters. During the 1970s, over 200 volunteers lived at La Paz while Cesar attempted to encourage farm workers to unionize. The residents lived and worked together, sharing meals, gardens and worship services as a community. From La Paz, the UFW led national grape and lettuce boycotts and fought to pass the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, the first law in the United States to give farm workers the right to organize and collectively bargain.

The monument, Nuestra Sonora Reina de la Paz, which will be managed by the National Park Service in consultation with the National Chávez Center and the César Chávez Foundation, will be the fourth National Monument designated by President Obama using the Antiquities Act.

It is a fitting tribute to a man who has had such an influence on the working conditions in America’s breadbasket, and the history of our country.

Jourdane is a former Deputy Secretary of Legal Affairs in the Governor’s office, attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the Department of Justice, Labor Commissioner; Superior Court judge. Jourdane has published several law review articles and two books: The Struggle for the Health & Legal Protection of Farm Workers: El Cortito and Waves of Recovery.

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