Discoveries

Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

Discoveries: Cesar Chavez National Monument

12/30/2012 12:00 AM

12/28/2012 2:03 PM

KEENE – A dozen teenage boys, nearly all Latino, spent the better part of a recent morning in a darkened room here at the Cesar Chavez National Monument, watching a film starring a man who died before they were born.

Nobody said anything. Nobody looked away or nodded off. Nobody got up to leave. Attention from this group from a foster care center in Visalia was rapt.

On the screen were flickering black-and-white TV images, probably as ancient as newsreel to these kids, of labor leader Cesar Chavez leading the United Farm Workers during the epochal grape strike in Delano in 1967.

It showed Chavez addressing scores of migrant farmworkers, some of them trying to hush crying babies in a packed meeting hall. It showed a grower in a suit and tie, telling an interviewer, straight-faced, "These men are extremely happy. Otherwise, they wouldn't be coming from all over to work here."

It showed Sen. Robert Kennedy sparring with the Kern County sheriff during a congressional hearing. It showed the workers' legendary march on Sacramento and, at the film's climax, showed worker after worker putting folded ballots into a ballot box.

When the lights came up, Bernadette Farinas, a National Chavez Center site administrator and granddaughter of Chavez, smiled and asked the boys if they had questions.

Not a one.

No worries. Farinas didn't press the matter. She just led them on a tour of the visitor center, the first national monument honoring a modern-day Latino.

She showed them posters from the 1967 Delano Grape Boycott, the re-creation of a tiny tin shack where migrants dwelled after long days in the fields, and a photo of a determined Chavez behind a Volvo PV544 coupe with a one-word sign attached to the back: "Huelga." Strike.

But when Farinas led them to the Plexiglas partition that preserves Chavez's office exactly the way it was when he died in 1993, she apparently figured it was time for a teachable moment.

She told one boy to press a button on the console attached to the partition. He did, and a spotlight illuminated six floor-to-ceiling bookcases overflowing with texts at the far end of the office.

"Cesar Chavez," she told the group, "only had an eighth-grade education. But he read all these books. Everything else he learned was self-taught. You see what can happen if you have the motivation?"

Had the point left an impression?

Hard to tell. But the boys from Visalia nodded respectfully and loped on to the next room of farmworker memorabilia.

These were the only visitors I encountered during a brief visit to Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz (Our Lady Queen of Peace), the newest national monument, dedicated by President Barack Obama in October.

Tucked into a tiny town in the Tehachapi Mountains southeast of Bakersfield, this 188-acre site was headquarters for Chavez and the United Farm Workers from 1971 until his death in 1993. It still serves as UFW offices. Chavez's widow, Helen, still lives on the grounds, and the center still plays host to many educational seminars and events.

La Paz, as it's informally called, opened to the public in 2004. Because of its remote location – neither in the Central Valley, where many union struggles played out, nor in a populated area such as Los Angeles – attendance hasn't always boomed.

I asked Paul Chavez, the labor leader's middle son and foundation president, whether it might make more sense to build a monument in Delano, where the grape strike was centered, and he smiled. It seemed obvious he'd heard this question many times before.

"Yes, that's where the strike was, but this here was the headquarters, where my dad lived and organized things for almost a quarter of his life," he said. "It's where he's buried, also. There are spots of significance all over the place – Delano, Salinas – but the thing is, it all came together here. It was like a spiritual place for him."

The younger Chavez said Obama's proclamation, as well as his appearance, in October during the heated presidential campaign, has sparked new interest.

"There's been a marked increase," he said. "Now we're getting people who normally didn't think about it. Some are people who are just National Parks buffs. It's a different type of people coming."

A diverse audience, Chavez said, means potentially informing a greater cross-section of Americans about past and present farmworker struggles.

It's still a work in progress, he said, but the visitor center and the verdant memorial garden bearing Chavez's headstone and a large wooden cross has moved many visitors to fill the walls with 3-by-5-inch index cards bearing slogans and heartfelt remembrances.

Alongside the handwritten "Si Se Puede" and "Viva La Raza" slogans, there was this unsigned note: "As a teacher, I am inspired by your teaching, helping all those who could not do for themselves. This is what I try to instill in my students – that one person can make a difference."


CESAR E. CHAVEZ NATIONAL MONUMENT

29700 Woodford-Tehachapi Road, Keene

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily Cost: $3

More information: www.nps.gov/CECH

Directions from Sacramento: Go south on Highway 99 to Highway 58 east from Bakersfield. Take exit 139 toward Keene. Follow signs to parking.

About This Blog

Sam McManis has covered travel and recreation at The Sacramento Bee since 2011, criss-crossing California to report on interesting, humorous, unexpected and sometimes truly strange stories. When he's not driving all over the state for work, Sam likes to run on the many mountain trails California boasts. Reach him at smcmanis@sacbee.com or 916-321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis https://twitter.com/SamMcManis
 

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