President Barack Obama came to Keene, California on October 8 to announce the establishment of the César E. Chávez National Monument. The monument at La Paz was the national headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) during its heyday, and the center of Chávez’s life from the early 1970’s until his death in 1993. While Obama’s White House message highlighted Chávez’s role in giving “a voice to poor and disenfranchised workers everywhere,” the President has personal reasons to promote the legacy of the farmworker leader. As I described on Cesar Chavez Day in 2010, Chavez and the UFW provided the political outreach model
for Obama’s 2008 grassroots campaign. Obama also borrowed his “Yes We Can” rallying cry from the UFW’s “Si Se Puede.” Many have worked for years to make this national monument a reality, and while specifically named for Chavez, it is also a tribute to all those who have worked for greater social and economic justice for farmworkers.
Having written a book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century
, on the ongoing legacy of Cesar Chavez and the UFW, I obviously believe that today’s activists can learn much from the farmworkers movement. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Chavez’s drive
to create a farmworkers movement, which makes Obama’s action particularly timely.
Of course, some will argue that Obama’s announcement of the Chavez monument and personal visit to the site is a thinly veiled political trip to curry favor with Latino voters. This may be part of his motivation, but he is so far ahead of Romney among Latinos, and the Latino electorate’s enthusiasm is so high, that the trip is more of a message of appreciation to Latino officials and voters for their support.
Obama was unable to credit Chavez or the UFW when he announced “Yes We Can” on the night he lost the New Hampshire 2008 primary because the union had endorsed rival Hillary Clinton. It will be interesting to see if Obama references the UFW’s creation of his rallying cry in his comments at the event.
Whether he does or not, expect “Si Se Puede” to be chanted loudly.
The monument became possible because the National Chávez Center, in consultation with the United Farm Workers of America, the César Chávez Foundation and members of César Chávez’s family, offered to donate certain properties at La Paz to the federal government for the purpose of establishing a national monument commemorating César E. Chávez and the farmworker movement.
The César E. Chávez National Monument will include a Visitors’ Center containing César Chávez’s office as well as the UFW legal aid offices, the home of César and Helen Chávez, the Chávez Memorial Garden containing Chavez’s gravesite, and additional buildings and structures at the La Paz campus.
Randy Shaw is also author of The Activist’s Handbook