Thirty-two years ago, a judge here jailed Cesar Chavez for refusing to call off a boycott of the world’s largest lettuce company.
The boycott of Bud Antle Inc. had been going nowhere. But it became national news soon after the charismatic Chavez wound up behind bars in John Steinbeck’s hometown.
During the 20 days Chavez was jailed, the widows of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. braved their way past unruly crowds to visit him, supporters erected a shrine to Chavez in the back of a pickup truck, and the ensuing media spectacle drew attention to the substandard working conditions of farm laborers.
A decade after his death, members of Congress are proposing that the National Park Service preserve the old Salinas jailhouse and other places in California and Arizona that have special significance in the life of Chavez, America’s best-known Latino civil rights leader.
But that legislation and another bill to designate a national Chavez holiday have gone nowhere for two years, failing to gain the support of a single Republican representative from California.
Meanwhile, the future of some of the sites -- including the Salinas jail, which is slated for demolition -- is in jeopardy, dependent on politicians who have neither spoken out against the controversial father of the United Farm Workers union nor taken action to advance legislation to honor him.
A bill by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain calls for the park service to prepare an inventory of key sites in Chavez’s life, from his family’s old homestead near Yuma, to Forty Acres, the union headquarters in Delano, Calif., where Chavez in 1968 fasted for 25 days to promote nonviolence during a bitter strike against grape growers.
The study is the first step in a campaign by the Glendale-based Cesar E. Chavez Foundation and others to designate at least some of the sites as landmarks and string them together as an educational trail, similar to those established in the South to memorialize King and the civil rights movement.
With his slogan “Si, se puede” -- “Yes, it can be done” -- Chavez challenged some of the country’s major agribusiness firms in the 1960s and ‘70s, as he sought to improve conditions for poorly paid Latino and Filipino farm workers who were sometimes deprived of toilets and fresh water.
By organizing workers and calling strikes, urging nationwide boycotts of grapes and lettuce -- and even resorting to hunger strikes in the manner of his hero Mohandas Gandhi -- Chavez won numerous concessions from growers. But he antagonized many farmers who felt that the labor leader demonized them all and wreaked economic havoc on their industry with protest tactics they likened to blackmail.
“In his life, he was very controversial. But it’s been 10 years since he passed away, and the values he stood for are still shining bright, whereas some of the animosity has faded,” said Chavez’s son, Paul, who strongly supports a national educational trail of Chavez landmarks.
Time has indeed dulled opposition to Chavez. He was recently commemorated with a postage stamp, Los Angeles has named a street for him, and several states, including California, have declared new holidays in his name.
But the fledgling effort to secure historic sites remains fraught with problems. Supporters concede it may take a few years to convince certain lawmakers -- notably members of the California GOP delegation -- that Chavez is worthy of National Park Service honors.
Legislation by Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) failed to find momentum last year, leading backers to turn to McCain this year in hopes of garnering bipartisan support. McCain successfully shepherded the legislation through the Senate, but it has stalled in the House subcommittee that oversees national parks. A companion measure by Solis also remains in the House.
Similar legislation by Rep. Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino) asking President Bush to create a federal holiday honoring Chavez has stalled. Republican House members had previously passed a rule that prohibits lawmakers from proposing more federal holidays, arguing that there are already too many.
“I realize this may take a little time, but I am committed to getting it done,” McCain said. “What has happened over time is that [Chavez] has begun to be appreciated for the causes he championed and the people he stood up for. King was also controversial. The woman who led the women’s suffrage movement was also controversial. When people challenge the conventional wisdom of their time, they’re usually controversial.”
Some supporters asserted this month that the McCain bill may not pass this year because Republican Rep. George Radanovich, the Fresno-area farmer who heads the House subcommittee, had privately vowed that it would not receive a hearing. But his chief of staff flatly rejected the speculation, saying Radanovich has no position on the measure and has done nothing to scuttle it.
“It’s on a list of 60 to 100 bills that are in a similar position, and not all of them can be first,” said Radanovich’s chief of staff, John McCamman, explaining why the McCain measure has not been scheduled for a hearing.
Chavez clearly remains a contentious subject in California’s Central Valley, especially among some of the area’s agricultural leaders, said Carol Whiteside, a former Modesto mayor and member of former Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration who now heads the Great Valley Center, a regional think tank.
“The people who are still tending old wounds are not in the majority,” Whiteside said. “But where those wounds exist, they do run deep.
“In the region, it’s still likely to be controversial,” she said of the park service proposal. “There are still a number of people who [think of] Chavez and don’t see the civil disobedience and civil rights work, but how they were hurt economically” by strikes and boycotts.
Already, a preliminary assessment commissioned by the park service has identified more than 30 potential historic sites. The most notable are Forty Acres, Chavez’s home on Kensington Street in Delano, and Nuestra Senora de la Paz, a refuge in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains where Chavez expanded the scope of his activism, evolving from the head of a union into the leader of a broader social justice movement that attracted people from many economic backgrounds, ethnic groups and religions.
Many of the locations are in private hands, and few, if any, are being preserved for historical purposes. Some potentially significant sites in San Jose’s old Sal Si Puedes barrio, where Chavez once lived, have already been lost to freeway expansion, longtime Chavez associates say.
Backers of a park service commemoration acknowledge the effort raises difficult questions over whether such sites as the Salinas jail are worth preserving when they conflict with local plans. Moreover, a few critics consider the proposed commemoration shallow populism that, like additional holidays usually spent shopping, does little to address the plight of the poor farm workers Chavez cared so deeply about.
“There’s this phenomenal amount of political correctness around all of this -- the holidays, the stamp, all this stuff,” said Arnoldo Torres, a son of migrant laborers who lobbies for health care for farm workers in Sacramento and serves as a political commentator on television. “I’d like to see John McCain introducing legislation to provide housing for farm workers. This is just more symbolism.”
The Salinas jail, a bunker-like building with weather-beaten walls, was all but abandoned two decades ago. It sits cordoned off by a chain-link fence, earmarked for demolition to make way for Monterey County’s new government headquarters.
Preservationists, farm worker activists and others who want to save the jail argue that it represents a special moment in the history of both the Salinas Valley and the farm labor movement. The California Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Chavez’s jail time for breaking a court order to end the boycott had been an unconstitutional infringement of his right to free speech. They say the jail should be restored, possibly as a museum, or at minimum as a working government building with a small exhibit on Chavez.
“It shows that people are willing to go to jail for social justice,” said Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the UFW with Chavez. “Christ was in jail. Gandhi was in jail. Martin Luther King was in jail.”
The California Historical Resources Commission voted in February to nominate the 1931 jail to the National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service officials have also written the county to express “deep concerns” over its demolition.
So far, the county, which sees the building as not worth saving, is winning its court battle with preservationists.
“I saw a woman giving a Steinbeck tour recently, and she was saying things like, ‘You see that parking lot there? That used to be this. You see that Greyhound station? That used to be that,’ ” said Joel Panzer, a former county planner who is part of a preservationist group that has sued the county to save the jail. “We still have the real thing here with this jail, and no picture is going to bring that to life for people the same way.”
But Fernando Armenta, chairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, said, “There are ways to celebrate the legacy of Cesar Chavez, but I don’t think restoring a building at the cost of millions of dollars is the way to do it.
“With our budget situation, we’re talking about closing clinics for farm workers right now. I would think that if Cesar was here today, he would say, ‘Scrap the building. Take care of the farm workers.’ ”