By Leslie Fields, Sierra Club Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Director
On October 8, on a gorgeous early autumn day in the oak-dappled foothills of California's Tehachapi Mountains, President Obama formally designated the César E. Chávez National Monument. The designation is the fourth of Obama's presidency, but the first-ever national monument dedicated to a Latino.
Below, the president with Helen Chávez at her late husband's gravesite at Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz (Our Lady Queen of Peace), or La Paz, in the town of Keene, California, site of the new national monument.
"César Chávez was a true labor and environmental champion whose work helped result in the passage of landmark laws that protect our air, water, land, and—most important—people," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. "His work helped link people's health and the environment, and his fight for environmental justice is one that the Sierra Club remains committed to today."
César Chávez was one of the forefathers of the environmental justice movement, which includes where people live, work, play, go to school, and worship. The farmworker movement led the way for better working conditions, chemical/pesticide policies, housing, improved health and education outcomes, immigration status, and access to justice.
President Obama greeted the crowd, estimated at 7,000, with an exhortation of "Si, se puede"—the motto of the United Farm Workers: "Yes, it can be done"—and they roared back with a chant of, "Four more years! Four more years!"
Screen shot from official White House video
The ceremony took place at La Paz, Chávez's former home and later the headquarters of the United Farmworkers, which Chávez and fellow labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta co-founded in 1962 as the National Farm Workers Association. Huerta was among those on hand for the President's speech, in which he acknowledged Huerta by name.
"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. "It's a story of natural wonders and modern marvels; of fierce battles and quiet progress. But it's also the 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.
"One of those people lies here, beneath a rose garden at the foot of a hill he used to climb to watch the sun rise. And so today we celebrate César Chávez."
More than five years ago, the Sierra Club urged the U.S. House of Representatives to support the César E. Chávez Study Act, to honor Chávez and his commitment to public lands, and authorize the U.S. Department of the Interior to study significant lands in Chávez' life and movement for inclusion into the National Park Service.
In an open letter to Congress, then-Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope wrote: "César Chávez' courageous life has inspired many to continue the fight for environmental justice so our children and families have a stronger, healthier future…. [But] despite the close connection between Latinos and the environment, there is not currently a single park unit dedicated to a Latino. To have the National Park Service trace landmarks significant to his life would be a fitting honor to Chávez.
"Through his movement," Pope said, "Chávez linked people and the environment, teaching us that we all have a right to live in a healthy and safe environment—no matter who we are or where we were born. The work of Chávez and members of the environmental community resulted in the passage of landmark [environmental] laws. The Sierra Club's work to draw attention to the devastating and disproportionate effects of resource extraction and global climate change no low income communities and people of color … also emulates the spirit of this great hero."
The preservation of public lands and human rights are inextricably linked, and honoring a man and a movement who lifted the human rights of farmworkers—those people most linked to working on the land—to the public consciousness is the right thing to do. The creation of the César E. Chávez National Monument allows for all Americans public access to the special place where one of the most important social movements in U.S. history was conceived and implemented.
The Sierra Club grassroots model credits Chávez with developing and embodying many of the principles it uses to this day. One legendary story involves Chávez during the UFW-led lettuce and grape boycotts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A young organizer supposedly asked Chávez his secret for successful organizing, to which he replied: "The only way I know how to organize is to talk to one person, then talk to another person, then talk to another person."
In his dedication, President Obama described the arc of Chávez' life and career, including its difficulties. "César worked for 20 years as an organizer without a single major victory—think about that—but he refused to give up. He refused to scale back his dreams. He just kept fasting and marching and speaking out, confident that his day would come. And when it finally did, he still wasn't satisfied. After the struggle for higher wages, César pushed for fresh drinking water and worker's compensation, for pension plans and safety from pesticides—always moving, always striving for the America he knew we could be."
The farmworker movement continues, and the formal recognition of its importance and unfinished business through the César Chávez National Monument will ensure the fight for human rights for agricultural workers will not diminish.