Sunday, September 2, 2007

My Journey to the National Chavez Center

The National Chavez Center


La Paz

My Tribute
to Cesar Chavez

During the Labor Day Weekend, (2007), I made a pilgrimage of sorts,to Keene, California. Keene is the home of the National Chavez Center at Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz, or simply La Paz for short (Spanish for Peace).

The Sign at the Entrance to La Paz
the National Chavez Center in Keene, CA

Established by the much revered civil worker, Cesar Chavez in the early 1970’s, La Paz became his home, as well as the base of his operations. Chavez is most remembered as being the person that was instrumental in organizing the farm workers, and being the founder of the United Farm Workers Union. As monumental as those credits are, he was so much more. He pioneered the modern model for the non-violent methods of civil disobedience demonstrated by Gandhi in much the same way as Martin Luther King, Jr. The greatest contribution of Cesar Chavez was to give hope to an entire category of people who were historically exploited, disenfranchised, and lacking in the basic rights we know as human rights and civil rights.

Paul F. Chavez and myself standing in front
of picture of his father and Bobby Kennedy

This refuge is set on 187 acres amid oaks and spectacular rock outcroppings in the Tehachapi Mountains. It is nestled in a quiet valley that offers a natural scenery that is breath taking even without all of enhanced landscaping on the grounds. La Paz is located 30 minutes east of Bakersfield and two and a half hours north of Los Angeles. It is also 100 miles from our home in Barstow.

A view of the grounds at La Paz

Cactus gardens at La Paz

The spanish style fountain outside
the National Chavez Center Museum

The center features a museum, a cafeteria, a conference center, a cactus garden, and a mission-style courtyard that includes the sacred burial gravesite for Cesar Chavez.

The beautifully landscaped inner courtyard
that holds the sacred grave site of Cesar Chavez

Grave Site of the much beloved Civil Rights Activist,
Animal Rights Crusader, and Champion of the Farm Workers

The originally facility was established by the County as a tuberculosis center for patients needing rest and sunshine. The Civil Rights leader relocated his operations there in the early 70's from Delano. Beyond just his home, it soon became the center of his operations and a refuge for his spiritual nurturing.

The Preserved Office of Cesar Chavez, now part of the Museum

The facilities includes the carefully preserved office and library in the 7,000 square foot Visitor Center which served as Chavez’s headquarters. La Paz more importantly served as his personal refuge and spiritual harbor, from where he drew inspiration, learned, strategize and engaged people. Notice the statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the corner which served as a constant source of inspiration for the love of animals as part of all life.

Side Entrance to the Courtyard that Houses
the Sacred Grave Site of Cesar Chavez

La Paz is an American treasure and is considered to be the Nation’s primary facility for educating the public about the life, work, and values of Cesar E. Chavez. For me it is much, much, more than that. As an activist for issues such as the environment, freedom of choice in alternative medicine (natural medicine), civil rights, equal rights, and lately the ancestral rights of Native Americans, I know that I stand on the shoulders of those great souls who have gone before us. Just like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez paved the way and developed the mechanisms for social change. It is their values, methods, and style that we seek to emulate in our current struggle to bring social change in the direction of "Justice, liberty, and Equality for all."

Cesar Chavez Quote that is Posted Above
the Preserved Museum Display of his Office

I only had one encounter with Cesar Chavez when he spoke at UC Davis (more on this in another post), but he was and will always be an enormous influence on my life and my path of community activism. As is the case with most activist today, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, are the role model by which we seek change in the world we live in. Everyone that seeks social change in any arena must give thanks to these great souls for pointing the way.

"It is my Deepest Belief that
Only by Giving Our Lives
Do We Find Life"
-Cesar Chavez

The occasion of my journey to this pristine refuge was a celebration event honoring the newly formed Democratic 34th AD Committee. I am a delegate from the 34th AD to the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee(SBCDCC) and the California Democratic Party. While the bulk of the population in the 34th AD lies on the other side of the Tehachapi mountains, as President of the Mojave Desert Democratic Club, I have been pushing our club members to join the new 34th AD Committee as a way to increase our visibility here in Barstow. So I take a little pride in the fact that our Democratic Club now represents half of the total membership in the new 34th AD Committee.

Lita Reid, Chair of the newly formed 34th AD Committee

Lita Reid, attorney and tireless, life-long Democratic organizer has been working overtime to get our new committee chartered under the state party. This meeting was designed and co-ordinated by her to celebrate that accomplishment. Her selection of La Paz as a venue, and Labor Day weekend for the timing of the event, is quite appropriate for Democrats since our party is the party of the working class. Within the days leading up to this event, Lita was able to confirm that Paul F. Chavez, Cesar’s son would be the keynote speaker.

Paul is the President of the National Farm Workers Service Center, Inc. (NFWSC) which he co-founded with his father. He has devoted himself to the preservation of his father’s legacy and the refocusing of his movement into the future. Since 1991, the NFWSC under the leadership of Paul Chavez, has achieved impressive gains in two key areas, dramatically changing the lives of farm workers, Latinos and other working families.

Paul F. Chavez, son of Cesar Chavez,
Speaking to the newly formed 34th AD Committe

The National Farm Workers Service Center (NFWSC) has preserved, developed and rehabilitated more than 4,000 units of high-quality affordable rental housing and built more than 600 single-family homes, all for low- and very low-income Latino and other working families. The NFWSC has also taken the Radio Campesina, the Spanish-language educational Farm Worker Radio Network, and developed it into nine stations with a strong presence in markets totaling roughly 2 million Latino listeners in California, Arizona and Washington state.

In his speech to our committee, Paul explained that they are making a major emphasis on the education of the next generation born to farm workers. Paul said that they are trying to get the students refocused away from the technical trades and into a pre-college path of education that will train them to compete for the higher paying white collar jobs.

Paul Chavez told us how the NFWSC has developed a three prong approach. The first, is to put early emphasis on reading by the third grade level to combat the drop out rate caused by illiteracy. The second, is strong emphasis on algebra at the middle school level to open the doors of engineering, and other sciences. The third prong of their focus is on Enlish as a second language to lift the primary obstacle keeping Latinos from piercing the barriers leading to higher paying jobs.

During Paul’s comments, I was able to ask him a question that was prominent on my mind. I told him that many people that carry the consciousness created in the 60’s and 70’s concerning the efforts toward social change. Other people from generations that followed are also tuning into the idea that ‘We the People’ must take control of our destiny to create that change. So my question quite simply was what people who would embrace the causes pioneered by his father and being carried on under his leadership, what could they do to get involved and keep his father’s dream alive.

Here is his response:

For me it was a high honor to meet the son of Cesar Chavez and tour the grounds of his refuge at La Paz. As the someone who also has born the responsibility of carrying on the legacy of my own father, I can’t help feel a special bond with Paul Chavez. I was quite inspired to see his efforts first hand and realize how proud his father must be of him now. This journey to La Paz, was for me, a pilgrimage to pay homage to a great leader and my hero. It is no exaggeration to say that this was an experience that I will cherish always. I look forward to my return visit and I my mind is busy at work thinking of ideas on how I can support and even corroborate with the great work of Cesar Chavez through his son Paul.

Paying Tribute, Respect, and a Prayer of Thanks
at the Grave of my hero, Cesar Chavez

Paul F. Chavez and Larry D. Halstead

Thank you Paul for such excellent inspirational comments! We appreciated you taking time out to speak with us. We all love the tremendous contribution that your father made toward Civil Rights. And we appreciate all the hard work that you have personally invested in preserving your father's legacy. Most importantly, for our children's future, we honor you and thank you for all of the tremendous contributions you have selflessly given in continuing that work and keeping it relevant to the current battle for Social Justice!

Thank You Paul!
We Love You!

More Info regarding tours, programs, conferences, and special events at the National Chavez Center contact:

National Chavez Center
29700 Woodford-Tehachapi Road
Keene, CA 93531
(661) 823-6134 office
(661) 823-6246 fax

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Heros Spotlight - Cesar Chavez

We Will Win. We are winning because
ours is a Revolution of Hearts and Minds
- Cesar Chavez

César Estrada Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona on March 21, 1927. His first ten years was surprisingly idealistic in many ways and filled with happy memories. Years earlier, his grandfather had purchase an 80 acre ranch where he had built a small adobe home. The ranch served as a protected refuge where young Cesar was surrounded by hundreds of aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived on nearby farms. His best friend was his brother Richard and the extended family would gather together on a nightly basis for an evening fiesta. The family grew their own food and had cows and chickens so that they were self sufficient and any lack was never known by Cesar.

This rather fantasy childhood came to screeching halt around age ten due to two major changes in Cesar's life. The first came in the summer of 1937 when an extreme summer heat wave caused the trees to wilt and the crops to die. Many families in the region were forced to pack up and move to California. When Cesar's dad was swindled out of the family home by a dishonest businessman, he packed up the family's possessions and joined others in the exodus in search of work and the hope of a better life in California.

Chavez Family house in Delano

The green fields of California masked what would become a much harder life for the Chavez family. The over crowed living conditions were bad enough to make Cesar homesick but it was the poverty of being a migrant work that really took it's toll and even Cesar was needed to work to etch out even a meager living. Sometimes the family supper would consist of dandelions picked from the side of the road.

It was here that Cesar was exposed to the deplorable working conditions that was the life of a farm worker. The work itself was hard enough. Picking beets would make his fingers bleed while thinning lettuce plants all day would make his back lock up with spasms. But worse yet, the landowners would treat the workers like slaves and would deny the workers with clean drinking water, bathrooms, or even breaks for rest or meals. All the while, the workers would be subjected to toxic pesticides that would make Cesar's eyes sting and his lungs wheeze.

For Cesar, things only got worse with his entrance into school where he suffered discrimination as a Latino student. When he broke the rule about speaking English only, he was forced to wear a sign that read: "I am a clown, I speak Spanish". He also remembered being punished with a ruler to his knuckles for speaking Spanish. Some schools were segregated, and he frequently encountered racist remarks.

He and his brother Richard attended thirty-seven schools over the course of their lives. He graduated from eight grade in 1942 which concluded his formal education. He was not allowed to attend high school because his father Librado had been in an accident and did not want his mother Juana to work in the fields. So instead, César became a farm worker.

During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy for two years where he served in the campaigns to
take Guam, Saipan, and Okinawa. After his time in the military, he married Helen Fabela in 1948. They spent their honeymoon in California by visiting all of the Missions from Sonoma to San Diego. Later, Cesar and Helen moved to Delano where they raised their nine children.

Cesar was influenced by Father Donald McDonnell. They talked about farm workers and strikes. Chávez read about St. Francis, Gandhi and nonviolence. After Father

McDonnell came another very influential person, Fred Ross, who had the Community Service Organization.

Starting with voter registration, Chávez became a union organizer for Ross's organization, a Latino civil rights group in 1952. In this capacity Chávez urged Mexican-Americans to register and vote, and he traveled throughout California and made speeches in support of worker’s rights. He became CSO's national director in the late 1950s.

Cesar Chavez breaking fast with Bobby Kennedy

In 1962, Chávez left the CSO. He co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta, Phillip Vera Cruz, and Larry Larry Itliong. In 1965 Filipino farm workers started the Delano grape protest in favor of higher wages. Six months later, Chávez and the NFWA led a strike of California grape-pickers on the historic farmworkers march from Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento for similar goals. In addition to the strike, the UFW encouraged all Americans to boycott table grapes as a show of support. The strike lasted five years and attracted national attention. When the U.S. Senate Subcommittee looked into the situation, Robert Kennedy, as the U. S. Attorney General, gave Chávez his total support. This effort resulted in the first major labor victory for U.S. farm workers.

In the early 1970s, the UFW organized strikes and boycotts to protest for, and later win, higher wages for those farm workers who were working for grape and lettuce growers. During the 1980s, Chávez led a boycott to protest the use of toxic pesticides on grapes. Bumper stickers read "NO GRAPES" and "NO UVAS" were widespread.

Cesar Chavez utilized fasting as a way to draw public attention, much the same way as his mentor model Gandhi. He fasted many times. In 1968 he went on a water only fast for 25 days. He did that fast again in 1972 and in 1988 he fasted again but this time for 36 days, when the Reverend Jesse Jackson intervened and took over for the next three days. Reverend Jackson then passed the fasting torch on to celebrities and leaders which included Martin Sheen,
Reverend J. Lowery, President of the SCLC; actor Edward Olmos, actor Emilio Estevez, the daughter of Robert Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy; Peter Chacon, legislator; actress Julie Carmen; actor Danny Glover; singer Carly Simon and actress/comedian Whoopi Goldber.

UFW organizers believed that a reduction in produce sales by 15% was sufficient to wipe out the profit margin of the boycotted product. These strikes and boycotts generally ended with the signing of bargaining agreements.

Later in life, education became César's passion. He moved his operations to the small community of Keene which became the office for the United Farm Worker headquarters. The walls of his office were lined with hundreds of books ranging in subject from philosophy, economics, cooperatives, and unions, to biographies on Gandhi and the Kennedys.

The UFW during Chávez's tenure was committed to restricting immigration. César Chávez and Dolores Huerta fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemmed from their belief that the program undermined U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the bracero program in 1964. The UFW was one of the first labor unions to oppose employer sanctions — a federal law that made it illegal to hire illegal aliens in 1973.

Chávez was an ethical vegan and vocal advocate of animal rights. He stated, "I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom. It was my dog Boycott who led me to question the right of humans to eat other sentient beings." He also said, "Kindness and compassion towards all living beings is a mark of a civilized society. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting and rodeos are all cut from the same defective fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves."

In accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from In Defense of Animals in 1992, Chávez stated, "We need, in a special way, to work twice as hard to help people understand that the animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves...We know we cannot be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them — exploiting animals in the name of science, exploiting animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting animals in the name of food."

Cesar Estrada Chavez made his transition on April 29, 1993. The greatly beloved civil rights leader was honored by those he served. More than 50,000 mourners came from Florida to California to pay honor to the fallen leader at the site of his first public fast in 1968 and his last fast in 1988; the United Farm Workers Delano Field Office at "Forty Acres." Hailed as the largest funeral for any labor leader in the history in the U. S. He was laid to rest at his beloved refuge, La Paz, at Keene, California.

In 1994, his widow was bestowed the Medal of Freedom for her husband from then President Clinton. On Citation with that came with the Nation's highest civilian award, President Clinton praised Chavez for having "faced formidable, often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence.

At the ceremony, President Clinton praised Chavez for having "faced formidable, often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence. And he was victoriuous. Cesar Chavez left our world better than he found it, and his legacy inspires us still. He was for his own people, a Moses figure.' The President added that: "The farm workers who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency, pinned their hopes on this remarkable man who, with faith and discipline, soft spoken humility and amazing inner strength, led a very courageous life."

Viva La Cuasa! Viva Cesar Chavez!