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Our World is a Better Place Because César Chávez Decided to Change It

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“Our world is a better place because César Chávez decided to change it.” — President Barack Obama at César E. Chávez National Monument dedication ceremony

President Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, honored one of the most revered figures in Mexican American history and all people committed to social justice by dedicating the César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene, California, on October 8, 2012. There is no statue to the man. The monument is the place, called Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, where Mr. Chávez made his home with his wife Helen, and worked as a labor organizer and civil rights leader with the United Farm Workers union. César Chávez founded UFW with Dolores Huerta fifty years ago, in 1962.

César Chávez practiced social change through nonviolence, relying on the teachings of Satyagraha by Mahatma Gandhi that also inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to fight segregation in the United States, and Nelson Mandela to overthrow apartheid in South Africa.

The Monument becomes the 398th unit in the National Park Service system, and the first honoring a Latino born later than the 1700s, the National Park Service told CNN. The Monument includes 120 acres, a visitor’s center, the UFW legal aid offices, Mr. Chávez’s home, a memorial garden with his grave, and other buildings.

Crowd at dedication ceremony | Photo by Robert Garcia/The City Project

Mr. Chávez grew up as a migrant farmworker. He did not go to school past the eighth grade. He served two years in the United States Navy, hoping to learn skills to help his community; but in those days, Mexican Americans were relegated to cooking and painting. He later called those years the worst time of his life. Before starting the UFW, Mr. Chávez was the head of the Community Services Organization started by Fred Ross with the support of Saul Alinsky.

“César himself worked for 20 years as an organizer without a single major victory — think about that — but he refused to give up,” noted President Obama. With the UFW, César Chávez organized a grape boycott across the nation that forced growers to accept the first collective bargaining agreements with farmworkers. “La causa” did not stop with wages, but included safer working conditions, freedom from pesticides, the ban of the back-breaking short handled hoe, and other humane working conditions.

Retired art teacher Mark Duerr from Madison, Wisconsin, remembers: “I still have trouble with green table grapes. My Chicano family went through plenty of hard times getting out of migrant work that evaporated. [When] Suzie Ibarra petitioned the state for better humane migrant housing, many farmers quit hiring migrants. I myself took a field job hoeing weeds. Many people settled in our area due to their inability to secure the ‘next’ job on the circuit.”

Dolores Huerta and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis | Photo by Robert Garcia/The City Project

César Chávez’s legacy transcends his work seeking justice for farmworkers. For muralist Judy Baca, artistic director of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center), “César Chávez was my call to consciousness. He made me realize that the situation in the fields was the same as the situation in the cities, rooted in discrimination, and what I needed to do as an artist coming out of university.” Judy helped paint the 40-foot banner that farmworkers carried on the 300 mile march from Delano to Sacramento. She created the monument to César Chávez at San Jose State University. “When we get to the 60s in the Great Wall of Los Angeles, César will be in it.” The Great Wall, the longest mural in the world, celebrates the multicultural history of California and the nation. “To be there to see Barack Obama dedicate that place as a sanctuary to the life and philosophy of César Chávez, that is a moment I am glad I lived to see.”

The procession to the dedication evokes the 300 mile UFW march from Delano to Sacramento | Photo by Sam Garcia/The City Project

For Julie Su, California Labor Commissioner and a recipient of a McArthur genius award for her work as a civil rights attorney, “It was exhilarating to witness a President, whose presidency is filled with historic significance, to pay tribute to another man who accomplished things beyond anyone’s imagination. Both of them embody the principle that our dreams of a better, more just and inclusive world are possible.”

Hernan Vera, head of Public Counsel and Julie’s husband, traveled with his wife and two young daughters to the dedication. “If we’re lucky, we each get a few opportunities in a lifetime to be eyewitnesses to a true historic event,” he said. “Today was one of those days.”

The struggle never ends. Today Public Counsel represents UFW in a class action lawsuit against Cal/OSHA over the state’s failure to enforce regulations guaranteeing adequate shade and water.

I went because I have never met the President and what better place to see this black President than at a monument celebrating a Latino civil rights leader who dedicated his life to diversity, democracy and freedom. A moment like this has never before happened. I took my 16 year old son Sam so that for him moments like this are as natural as day and night. Without César Chávez this moment would not have happened. Without Barack Obama this moment would not have happened. Without the movement, none of this would have happened.

See more images of the César Chávez dedication at The City Project flickr page.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and Robert Garcia | Photo by Sam Garcia/The City Project

Top: President Obama in Keene, California | Photo by Sam Garcia/The City Project