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December 10, 2013

Sierra & Tierra: A Monument to Human Decency

By Javier Sierra

During 22 days, four social justice heroes fasted in Washington, DC, to support immigration reform including a path to citizenship, in the shadow of the very same Congress that refuses to vote on it.

Their names are Cristián Avila, Dae Joong Yoon, Eliseo Medina and Lisa Sharon —the vanguard of a movement hungry for justice for 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in the shadows of our society exposed to all kinds of injustices.

Medina et al leaving by Javier SierraLabor leader Eliseo Medina, followed by his colleagues, ends his fast in Washington, DC (Photo J. Sierra)

Their sacrifice —under the theme “Fast for Families”— has attracted the country’s attention, including President Obama, the First Lady, Vice-President Joe Biden and the Democratic leadership in Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But so far, all they have to show for it is the indifference of a House of Representatives that stubbornly refuses to vote on a bill the Senate has already approved.

The fast, inevitably, brings us memories of César Chávez’s formidable struggle in favor of justice and humane treatment for farm workers in California and other Southwestern states.

During his activism, this social and environmental justice giant completed two hunger strikes and, in 1988, a “Fast for Life” in protest against the use of pesticides. Over 36 days, Chávez sacrificed his body to safeguard the health of tens of thousands of farm workers who suffered a daily toxic bombardment of terrible consequences.

Our moral debt to Chávez is enormous. And a new initiative is trying to partially repay it. The Department of the Interior has submitted a proposal to Congress to establish a new National Historic Park to honor Chávez and the farm workers movement he led along with Dolores Huerta.

After evaluating 100 sites of historic significance regarding Chávez’s legacy, the department has recommended that the following five be integrated into this new park:
—The 40 Acres National Historic Landmark, in Delano, CA, where he completed his first hunger strike.
—The Filipino Community Hall, also in Delano, the headquarters of the 1965 grape strike.
—The César E. Chávez National Monument at Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, in Keene, CA, where he lived and founded the United Farm Workers Union.
—The Santa Rita Center, in Phoenix, AZ, where he underwent his second hunger strike in 1972.
—And the route of the 1966 Delano to Sacramento March, a 340-mile walk that Chávez and his fellow activists covered to protest the working conditions in the California vineyards.

“Recognizing these sites associated with his leadership of the United Farm Workers as part of a national historical park will ensure that his contributions to the Civil Rights movement will be preserved and shared as an inspiration for future generations,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Chávez’s spirit was almost palpable in the air of that cool morning in Washington, DC, when his successors ended their fast after three weeks of sacrifice.

But the struggle continues, and several other activists took their places to continue reminding the consciences of the House members that 11 million people are still suffering deportations, deaths on the border, labor exploitation and environmental injustices that threaten the health of their families and communities.

All of them also deserve a monument, a monument to human decency.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

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