Thursday, May 24, 2018

Si Se Puede! - Cesar Chavez National Monument

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

It is kind of strange to think that we had never been to the National Monument closest to us. Cesar Chavez National Monument lies a mere 30 odd miles east of Bakersfield, and we drive right by it every time we head out to Utah, Arizona, or even just Red Rock Canyon State Park. Perhaps one reason for the neglect is that it is a fairly new monument. Created in 2012 by President Obama, it was intended to eventually be part of a larger National Historic Park with several locations throughout central California. (That will require an act of Congress, which seems unlikely as long as the Republicans are in power and are dominated by a xenophobic ideology.)

It is difficult to escape knowledge of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers if you live in California’s central valley. The famous Table Grape Boycott and worker strike started in Delano, about 30 miles north of Bakersfield. Chavez’ name is on almost as many streets, buildings, and schools as Martin Luther King Jr.’s here in California. From The Grapes of Wrath to Esperanza Rising, the history of farm labor is inseparable from the history of California. The stories are told in histories, fiction, and legend. Helen Fabela Chavez, Cesar’s wife - and a labor legend in her own right - lived here in Kern County until her death less than two years ago. Dolores Huerta is still with us, and as feisty as ever.I have friends who worked the fields, and some of our local bench and bar grew up in farmworker families.

Just a bit of background, for those who aren’t as familiar with the story. Mexican farm workers have been working the fields, vineyards, and orchards of California ever since the Spaniards showed up and established missions. California was part of Spain, then Mexico for nearly 100 years. During that time, migrant workers went back and forth freely across the border. Actually, let me be honest: it has never really stopped. Up until the immigration changes in the 1920s, anyone could cross that border (except certain known criminals) and settle here. Or come, work, and return as they wished.

Things changed during the Dust Bowl. With white migrants from Oklahoma and Kansas and other Great Plains states, suddenly there were extra workers - which meant the brown ones had to go. During the Mexican Repatriation, around two million Mexican Americans (about 60% of which were American citizens) were forcibly removed. But that didn’t mean that immigration stopped. Rather, as the Okies largely moved out of farm labor, and into other professions, the vacuum was filled once again by Mexican migrants. And also Filipino immigrants. (To this day, Delano has a large Filipino population. There are two Senior Centers, which I used to visit during my GBLA days. One was predominantly Filipino Americans, while the other was mostly Mexican Americans.)

Fast forward to 1965. Our section of California grows the vast majority of the table grapes grown in the United States. Grapes are a big deal here. Large family and corporate farms dominate the industry, and all rely on farm labor for the tremendous work required to tend and pick the vines. Due to an unfortunate loophole in the law (and lax enforcement of the laws that existed), workers were being paid less than minimum wage - and the growers were demanding lower wages even as a record harvest rolled in.

The Filipino union started the strike, but Chavez joined in soon after. The two unions merged to form the UFW soon after. You can read more about the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott here. The boycott would become an international blacklisting of California table grapes, and the pain would eventually be felt by the growers. Chavez would fast for 25 days to draw attention to the issue, with Robert Kennedy, among others, eventually joining the fight. A march from Delano to Sacramento - 200 miles! - drew nationwide press. The strike continued for five long years, but eventually, the growers gave in, and union representation was put in place. Laws were also changed.

Later, Chavez had a vision for a headquarters for the UFW that would also serve as an American version of the Kibbutz - a collective community. A property that appeared suitable came on the market, and Chavez and the UFW made plans.

The history of this place is fascinating. They had a video on it at the visitor’s center. Originally, in 1913, the property was the site of a rock quarry run by the Kern County Highway Department. Later, in 1917, the quarry was shut down, and the site was converted to a tuberculosis sanitarium, run by the California Bureau of Tuberculosis. (Yes, we actually had that back in the day!) Quite a few buildings were added over the years to “Stony Brook Retreat,” and it became quite the compound. It’s in a beautiful spot in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, with clean, dry air and moderate temperatures year round - the perfect place to try to beat the consumption.

Alas, by the 1960s, admissions were way down - darn you, penicillin! - and the State shut down the operation. The County then had this property on its hands, and decided to auction it off.

Chavez knew, however, that he was hated by the powers that be in Kern County. (We still have some of that Good Old Boy network going - and a few really horrid politicians...although by no means all of them.) Thus, the chances of him being permitted to purchase the property (in 1970) was pretty much zero. The County went so far as to refuse to let anyone from the UFW view the property.

A little strategy was needed. Edward Lewis, a film producer, offered to help. He got permission to view the property, and took along one of Cesar Chavez’s brothers...who posed as a chauffeur. (I can’t find exactly who he was - he was in the film, but not on the NPS website about the site. I think I have the relationship correct.) Lewis then bid on the property, won, and then turned around and leased it to the UFW with the intent of eventually selling it to them.

The County officials were furious, and refused to accept payments for a few years, before eventually giving in. But the deed was done, and there was no helping it. The UFW got its property.

The compound was renamed Nuestra SeƱora Reina de La Paz, and the UFW moved its headquarters there. Chavez would also live there for a number of years. From 1970 to 1984, the site served as a community as well. Times changed, and many of the buildings have become a bit run down. You can’t tour them, although some are still retained by the UFW, and are available for conferences and stuff.

A part of the site was donated to the National Park Service, and is now the Cesar Chavez National Monument. You can read more about La Paz on the NPS website.

The part you can visit consists primarily of the visitor’s center and the gardens. Within the visitor’s center is a reconstructed farm worker house, which is all of six feet by eight feet, with no plumbing, and a single bed. Often more than one family would share the house. This is what the growers offered their workers - and the housing and food ate up their meager wages - and often more than that, which is why children worked the fields rather than attend high school. Also there is Cesar Chavez’ office, and a collection of historic photographs and artifacts from the early days of the UFW and its predecessors.

The gardens are interesting. Not particularly large, they consist of three parts. The first part as you enter is filled with plants important to California, from a giant native blue oak (likely a few hundred years old) to roses (the Rose Parade flowers are sourced from Shafter and Delano) to grapes, naturally.

The middle section contains the gravesites of Cesar and Helen Chavez, as well as a monument to the UFW. It is a peaceful and beautiful place.

The third section was inspired by Cesar Chavez’ birthplace, Yuma, Arizona. It contains cacti, agave, and ocotillo, all of which were in bloom.

It won’t take long to tour: we spent about an hour and a half there, and some of that was because I was chasing birds with my camera.

To make a day of it, like we did, I recommend heading to Tehachapi for lunch, then touring the historic train depot. Finally, drive up to the Tehachapi Loop, a section of train track where a full loop is made, and most freight trains will be on top of themselves 77 feet below. It is a busy line - really the only artery from the Southwest to the Central Valley - and trains pass every half hour or so. We even got to see a “Meet,” where two trains pass on the Loop.

I am hoping that eventually Congress finishes the task, and adds the Delano headquarters and other sites to a larger National Historic Park, the way they did for the World War Two Homefront sites. Farmworker rights still remain an unfinished task, and our racist and dysfunctional immigration laws are part of the problem, giving employers extra leverage against exploited workers. (I highly recommend The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan for an inside look at the realities of farm work.) The recent Supreme Court decision allowing employers to force employees into individual arbitration rather than group together in a class action is a terrible step in the wrong direction. I cannot but believe that there is more need for unionization than ever before, in the face of increasingly powerful (and more monopolistic) corporate employers, with no perceived duty to their workers. Chavez began the work, but there is so much still to do.

One final thought: the slogan, Si Se Puede! is so very familiar, yet its significance isn’t always appreciated. Chavez helped popularize it, but credit belongs to Dolores Huerta for coming up with it in the first place.

Barack Obama essentially “borrowed” it with his “Yes We Can” speech, and that certainly is one possible translation. More literally, it might be read as “Yes, it CAN be done.” But as the exhibits point out, both of these miss that the “we” part is crucial. The meaning is “Yes, it can be done if we work together. WE can do this.” The collective action is important. Strength and power in numbers. And in community.


Pictures, of course: 

"Huelga!" - "Strike!" Chavez named his dogs Huelga and Boycott. 
This is one of the original signs for the "National Farm Workers Association," one of the two unions that merged to form the UFW.

My youngest, Lillian, working on her Jr. Ranger book. She was horrified at the crowded conditions. And the lack of bathrooms. 

 Chavez' Office. 

 A picture of the march on Sacramento - this covered an entire wall. Very impressive. 

 The gravesites. As my wife said, "it isn't often I see one of my patients' graves." 

 A major score here. This is a male Hooded Oriole - what a beautiful bird.

 Cactus in the Arizona garden. 

 This Red-shouldered Hawk and California Scrub Jay were in a dead treetop right by the old Sanitarium.

 Trains on the Tehachapi Loop.

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