National Park Service wants to honor labor leader Cesar Chavez

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 24, 2013 

— The life and times of United Farm Workers’ co-founder Cesar Chavez should be honored with a new multi-state national historical park that stretches from Arizona to California’s San Joaquin Valley, the National Park Service recommended Thursday.

After studying some 100 potential sites important in the U.S. farm labor movement, officials pinpointed four in California and one in Arizona. The proposed national historical park would include the existing Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, Calif., which was previously established by President Barack Obama.

“Cesar Chavez was one of the most important labor and civil rights leaders of the 20th century, and the farm movement he led improved the lives of millions of agricultural workers,” declared National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “Sites associated with his life and the movement he led are an important part of American history.”

Park service officials concluded they could use management agreements and memoranda of understanding to administer the historical park, and so are not calling for new federal land purchases.

But unlike the Chavez national monument established last year through the president’s own executive power, creation of a national historical park requires congressional action. A 2008 bill that passed when the House of Representatives was still controlled by Democrats ordered the park service study, 15 years after Chavez passed away.

The House is now controlled by Republicans, who have sometimes cautioned against expanding the national park system in order to retain focus on the needs of existing parks. A backlog of other park proposals still awaits action. In this Congress alone, introduced bills would create national historical parks to honor Underground Railroad activist Harriet Tubman, the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb, Delaware’s early role in U.S. history and the Apollo manned spaceflights to the moon, among others.

“The chairman has always said that these have to be done on a case-by-case basis, very carefully,” Mike Tadeo, spokesman for the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in an interview Thursday.

Western farmers’ traditional antipathy toward the United Farm Workers could also possibly complicate the proposed park’s legislative prospects.

“I would suspect there are people, particularly in these highly partisan times, who might have a hard time with this,” Paul Chavez, one of eight children of the late union organizer and now president and chairman of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, acknowledged in a telephone interview.

The park service estimates a staff of about 13 and an annual budget of between $1 million and $3 million would be required for the proposed Chavez historical park.

Park service officials recommended that the new historical park include the Forty Acres National Historic Landmark and the Filipino Community Hall in Delano, Calif., as well as the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument and the Santa Rita Center in Phoenix. In addition, the park service recommends including a site called McDonnell Hall in San Jose, Calif., where visitors could learn about Chavez’s early community organizing work.

Officials say a visitors’ center could be built into an existing structure at the Forty Acres site, the location of a famous 1968 fast by Chavez. The Santa Rita Center in Arizona was the location of a 1972 fast by Chavez.

“We think it’s a fitting move,” Paul Chavez said. “My father’s work took place in a lot of different areas.”

Born in Arizona in 1927, Cesar Chavez co-founded, along with Dolores Huerta, the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. The organization later morphed into the United Farm Workers of America, using strikes, boycotts and lawsuits to press for higher wages and safer fields.

“Migrant farm workers’ living and working conditions throughout the first half of the twentieth century were brutal,” the National Park Service noted in its new report. “The work was exhausting, and it required considerable amounts of skill, dexterity, efficiency and stamina. Farm workers also had to contend with summertime heat, a lack of drinking water, poor sanitation facilities and housing, low wages and frequent work shortages.”

The existing 105-acre national monument in Keene, about 30 miles east of Bakersfield, covers the property known as Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz. It became the UFW’s national headquarters in 1972, and also housed Chavez, family members and union supporters.

Ron Sundergill, Pacific Region senior director of the National Parks Conservation Association, noted Thursday that the presidentially established national monument was “the first national park site to honor a contemporary Latino American,” and he applauded “diversifying our national park system from the inside out.”

There are currently 46 recognized national historical parks, with several – such as the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia – spanning several states.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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