Obama makes trek to La Paz
Vida en el Valle
(Published Tuesday, October 9th, 2012 01:26PM)
KEENE -- Grace Vallejo cheered as President Barack Obama stood on the grounds of Nuestra Señora Reina de La Paz, the headquarters of the United Farm Workers of America and the resting place of union leader César E. Chávez, and honored the humble farmworker by establishing a national monument in his name.
For Vallejo -- one of seven children born to migrant farmworkers, who worked for the farmworker union for $5 a week in the late 1960s -- the president's recognition of La Paz proved the struggle of Chávez, and the thousands of farmworkers he inspired, had not been in vain.
The moment was historic, she said, because in its early years, the union had very little political support. It was noteworthy, she said, that this strong showing of support was coming from the nation's first black president.
"Having another minority, the President of the United States, recognizing what the movement is, and what it has done for humanity... it's like saying, 'I know and I feel you plight and I know the struggles you've had, and what you became," said Vallejo, who today is the mayor of Delano.
Vallejo, a petite woman with red hair, who waved a bumper sticker emblazoned with the phrase, ¡Obamanos!, was one of an estimated 7,000 people who traveled to the 187-acre property, tucked into the Tehachapi Mountains, about 30 miles east of Bakersfield, to witness Obama recognize the new national monument Monday morning.
"Today, La Paz joins a long line of national monuments -- stretching from the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon -- monuments that tell the story of who we are as Americans," Obama said during an address of about 10 minutes. While some monuments recognize natural wonders, this one recognizes, "a story of people -- of determined, fearless, hopeful people who have always been willing to devote their lives to making this country a little more just and a little more free.
As of now, the national monument will include a 7,000-square-food visitor center, which includes Chávez's pristinely preserved, book-lined office, and the Spanish mission-style memorial garden that surrounds Chávez's simple gravesite. He died in 1993.
"Every time somebody's son or daughter comes and learns about the history of this movement, I want them to know that our journey is never hopeless, our work is never done," Obama said.
"I want them to learn about a small man guided by enormous faith -- in a righteous cause, a loving God, the dignity of every human being. I want them to remember that true courage is revealed when the night is darkest and the resistance is strongest and we somehow find it within ourselves to stand up for what we believe in."
For 50 years, La Paz was a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, called Stony Brook Retreat, according to the National Park Service. It closed in 1967. The UFW moved its headquarters from Forty Acres, in Delano, to La Paz in 1971.
Since then, La Paz helped to cultivate a community, and foster the farmworker movement.
Beginning in the 1970s, about 250 people -- mainly volunteer staff and their families -- lived and worked in La Paz at any one time, according to information provided by the union. La Paz also featured a school, a community garden, and a community kitchen where volunteers and visitors shared meals, known as Pan y Vino (Bread and Wine.)
Chávez, too, lived in a humble, wood-frame home at La Paz; it became his "spiritual harbor," far from the struggles and politics of the Central Valley fields and cities, son Paul Chávez said.
Thousands more farmworkers and their supporters visited La Paz to plan and participate in the union's organizing efforts, field strikes, boycotts and political campaigns.
Vallejo has fond memories of La Paz.
She worked for the union when its headquarters were still in Delano, by joining grape strikes and helping farmworkers with their immigration papers and tax returns. But since then, she has shared meals at Pan y Vino, helped plan campaigns and events, and attended wedding and baptisms on the property.
"La Paz has now become not just a headquarters for the political side, or even for the organizing side," she said. "It's become a personal location. It's like a house; the union has their house."
Obama concluded his speech with praise for Chávez, and a plea to those assembled on the property.
"Our world is a better place because César Chávez decided to change it," he said. "Let us honor his memory. But most importantly, let's live up to his example."