In front of a jubilant crowd of thousands yesterday morning, President Obama declared the home of labor leader César Chávez and the national headquarters of the United Farm Workers Union a National Monument.
The Keene, Calif. site, known as Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz (or simply La Paz), is closely associated with unprecedented gains Chávez and the union secured between 1970 and 1984. Upon his death in 1993, Chávez was buried at La Paz.
“The National Trust for Historic Preservation believes the designation of a César Chávez National Monument is an important first step toward a more comprehensive celebration of the life and legacy of César Chávez and his contributions to the farm labor movement,” National Trust President Stephanie Meeks said in a statement. “We applaud the President’s selection of the La Paz property as a National Monument. La Paz is one of several historic sites identified by the National Park Service related to César Chávez that depicts an important but underrepresented aspect of our nation’s history.”
The César E. Chávez National Monument is the fourth national monument the President has designated. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president authority to designate monuments as a way to protect “objects of historic or scientific interest.” During his administration, President Obama has also designated national monuments at Fort Ord in California, as well as Virginia’s Fort Monroe and Colorado’s Chimney Rock, both National Trust National Treasures.
A total of 16 presidents and Congress have used the Act to establish more than 100 national monuments, with Bill Clinton creating the most (19). George W. Bush designated six during his administration, including Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest national monument at nearly 90 million acres. These sites are managed by various agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service.
The designation of La Paz is especially timely, Meeks pointed out, as it is occurring during National Hispanic Heritage Month. In her statement, she also emphasized that the National Trust is committed to continuing collaborative work with the National Park Service and its American Latino Heritage Initiative.
“Today, La Paz joins a long line of national monuments -- stretching from the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon -- monuments that tell the story of who we are as Americans,” President Obama said at yesterday’s ceremony. “It's a story of natural wonders and modern marvels; of fierce battles and quiet progress. But it's also a story of people -- of determined, fearless, hopeful people who have always been willing to devote their lives to making this country a little more just and a little more free.”
César Chávez's memorial garden and burial site.
National Trust Advisor Luis G. Hoyos attended yesterday’s ceremony in Keene and said: “I noticed a lot of us were Latinos, of course; we come in all shapes and sizes. But on a closer look I saw old Latinos, men, veterans, what appeared to be former farm workers, dressed modestly and hanging on to canes, wheelchairs, a wife, a banner of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Those faces will be with me for some time.”
Also in attendance was National Trust Advisor Donna Graves, who commented: “Hats, t-shirts and buttons among the crowd testified to long-standing commitment to labor organizing and the United Farm Workers. President Obama’s appearance swelled the heartfelt joy of many gathered in knowing that finally their herencia, their heritage, was being honored at the highest level.”
And for the National Trust’s vice president of historic sites, Estevan Rael-Gálvez, attending the dedication ceremony was moving professionally and personally:
“As I breathed in the air of La Paz at the end of the day, I remembered that back home, elders always remind us that ‘wherever we go, we leave our breath behind us.’ The spirit of this place -- surrounded by rolling hills, nearly 200 acres, 26 buildings and structures that were/are home and headquarters for the United Farm Workers and their families -- can equally be felt in the breath of those who remain dedicated to the work of social justice and those whose breath has been left behind as well. Chávez was certainly there today; he was in the slope of the hills, the dust from the road, and he was in the hands and faces of every individual who has ever longed for civil rights and social justice.”
Gwendolyn Purdom is a freelance writer for Preservation magazine. A Chicago native, Gwendolyn is passionate about the people and stories behind historic places – the quirkier the better.