published Saturday, October 26th, 2013

Agency recommends national park for Cesar Chavez

The National Park Service is recommending that Congress create a new historic park to honor farm labor leader Cesar Chavez, one that would be made up of four sites in California and a former Phoenix church hall where the now-famous rallying cry "Si se puede" was popularized.

The recommendation Thursday comes after years of study on sites that are significant to the life of Chavez and the U.S. farm labor movement. Congress authorized the study in 2008, and the Park Service narrowed a list of about 100 sites to five to become a multi-state national historic park.

Marc Grossman, Chavez's longtime spokesman, speech writer and personal aide, said including sites in Arizona and California is fitting because it recognizes the length and breadth of Chavez's labors.

As head of the United Farm Workers, the Arizona-born Chavez staged a massive grape boycott and countless field strikes, and forced growers to sign contracts providing better pay and working conditions to the predominantly Latino farmworkers. He was credited with inspiring millions of other Latinos in their fight for more educational opportunities, better housing and more political power.

United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta was at Chavez's side in downtown Phoenix during a 1972 fast that helped reshape Arizona's political landscape. Chavez and other UFW leaders had been talking about an Arizona law that restricted the rights of farmworkers to strike or boycott crops.

The response from farm workers and other labor leaders was one of defeat. Huerta responded by saying that workers should focus on thinking positively, saying: "Si se puede," or "It can be done."

Ultimately, thousands of farm workers and supporters such as Coretta Scott King participated in rallies and Masses in downtown Phoenix, giving voice to the United Farm Workers slogan.

The Santa Rita Center, constructed as an extension of the Sacred Heart Church, is a small building on an inner-city street near the airport. Chicanos Por La Causa, an organization that traces its roots to the activists who met there, opens it every so often for events. But it sits vacant most of the time.

The Park Service's recommendation is for the agency to work through agreements with local communities to educate the public not only on Chavez, the farm labor movement and its organizers, but the art and music associated with it, and contemporary struggles for human and labor rights, said Martha Crusius, the project manager on a study of sites significant to Chavez's life.

The other sites in California are:

• Forty Acres National Historic Landmark in Delano, home to the union hall where grape growers signed their first union contracts after five years of grape strikes and boycotts. It's also here that Chavez held his other public fast, this one to protest the use of pesticides. The building serves as a field office for the United Farm Workers of America.

• Filipino Community Hall in Delano became a symbol of multi-ethnic unity during the 1960s, serving as a joint headquarters for farm labor movements led by Filipino organizer Larry Itliong and Chavez.

• McDonnell Hall in San Jose is recognized as the place where Chavez made his start as a community organizer.

• Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz in Keene served as the planning and coordination center of the UFW starting in 1971. It's where Chavez and many organizers lived, trained and strategized. Chavez taught farmworkers how to write contracts and negotiate with growers. President Barack Obama last year designated part of this 187-acre site, known more simply as "La Paz," as the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument.

Convincing Congress to designate the five sites as a national historic park could be a tough sell.

"Not a lot is happening in Congress right now, and it's hard to get anything passed among the deadlock between the two parties," said Ron Sundergill of the National Parks Conservation Association. "So, we'll see."

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