With Cesar Chavez monument, Obama reaches out to Latinos

KEENE, Calif. — President Obama is poised to make a bit of history when he visits this Tehachapi Mountain hamlet Monday to dedicate the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, the nation’s first such site to honor a contemporary Mexican American. He’ll also be sending a message.

By stopping at an out-of-the-way corner of a state already safely in his column — less than a month before the Nov. 6 election — Obama is reaching out to Latino voters, underscoring their growing importance in presidential politics.

Most polls show Obama expected to get about 70% of the Latino vote, and some of the country’s fastest-growing Latino communities are in hotly contested battleground states like North Carolina, Nevada, Virginia and Florida. But Latinos also lag behind whites and blacks in voter turnout, a shadow over Democrats’ hopes if the election hangs on razor-thin margins.

Thousands of people are expected to descend on Nuestra Reina de La Paz for the event, where Obama will honor the soft-spoken, diminutive founder of the United Farm Workers who became an internationally recognized voice for the poor and disenfranchised.

“This is an important moment in history,” said Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a Kettleman City community activist, who visited the site last week and planned to bring her father, a retired farmworker, to the dedication.

“My dad still talks about the day he held a UFW flag up while marching in Cesar’s funeral procession,” she said. “The memory I’ll pass down to the next generation is this: I was there when the president of the United States came to La Paz and declared it a national monument.”

It’s a different world than Chavez’s heyday, with Latinos — including those of Mexican descent — increasingly urban denizens who will never stoop to pick a crop. Still, Chavez’s legacy resonates broadly, if unevenly.

Ruben Navarrette, a CNN contributor, said with polls showing that more than 5% of Latino voters remained undecided, the president’s trip was as practical as it was symbolic.

“I don’t think he’s doing this just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s crunch time for the campaign,” he said. “This is clearly a pitch for any lingering Latino votes Obama hasn’t gotten.”

Said Terry Carreto, 52, a high school counselor from Boyle Heights: “I think people will appreciate this because not too many Latinos get recognized, especially by the president of the United States.”

Referring to Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Carreto added, “I don’t think what’s his name, the other guy, he’ll ever compare with Obama with the Latino community.”

The visit comes as the struggling UFW celebrates its 50th anniversary. By the time Chavez died in 1993, the labor leader and his union had been written off by detractors who called them irrelevant in contemporary labor, cultural and political issues.

But last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar added the La Paz retreat, which served as headquarters of the UFW and Chavez’s residence from 1971 to his death, to the National Register of Historic Places. In May, the Navy christened the newest cargo-ammunition ship for Chavez, who served in the Navy during World War II. New documentaries are in the works, and the first feature film about Chavez is nearing completion.

Leaning back on stonework and admiring the memorial rose garden in La Paz where Chavez was buried, Paul F. Chavez, the labor leader’s middle son and president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, said that beginning Monday, “we’ll be sharing this magical place with all America.”

In the runup to election day, Obama has emphasized his support for the Dream Act, which would allow some young illegal immigrants to remain in the country legally, and signed an order blocking the deportation of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants.

But that issue provides a stark reminder that Chavez does not always fit neatly into the narrative of Latino civil rights. Chavez once led a march to the Mexican border to protest the incursion of illegal immigrants who he felt depressed the wages and the prospects of unionized farm workers.

“We had a conference here honoring him last year, and one key question was what would Cesar Chavez’s stand be on illegal immigration,” said Bianca Guzman, acting chairwoman of Chicano/Chicana Studies at Cal State L.A. “I do think, to be fair to him, he wasn’t stuck in past issues. He was always proactive and I think he would have come around. … I couldn’t picture him at a press conference coming out against the Dream Act.”

The new Chavez monument could boost interest in the “reelect Obama” headquarters in Fresno and help shore up allegiance with Latinos in this agricultural region.

The monument will embrace a 3-acre portion of La Paz that was donated by the family and includes Chavez’s grave site, his carefully preserved office and a small, white wood-frame house where his widow, Helen, still lives. Obama will designate the monument by invoking the Antiquities Act, avoiding the need to wait for a final determination by Congress.

Ruben Andrade, currently superintendent of Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota, said being selected the first supervisor of the Chavez national monument was a dream realized. A native of Dixon, Calif., his parents were farmworkers.

“This is an honor and a dream come true,” Andrade said in a phone interview. “More than 10 years ago, a seasoned park ranger asked me, ‘What would be your dream career in the National Park Service?’ I told him I’d like to be supervisor of a Cesar Chavez national park someday. He said, ‘Ruben, that might not happen for 20 years or more.’”

Carreto, the high school counselor, said she appreciated the historical significance of what will happen Monday — and the honor bestowed on a civil rights leader who shared her roots — but acknowledges some mixed feelings about Chavez’s iconic status.

She thought it was a “slap in the face” when Boyle Heights’ Brooklyn Avenue was renamed for him. The street’s original name, she felt, had symbolized the community’s early role as a Los Angeles melting pot. She also questioned how much Chavez had done for urban Latinos like herself who had never worked in the fields.

“He had done some amazing things, but not in Boyle Heights,” Carreto said. “I still call the street Brooklyn. I never say Cesar Chavez.”

The day Chavez died, Carreto recalled, she ran across a sobbing boy at Roosevelt High School. He thought the famed Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez had died.

She took the boy aside and filled his ears with stories about the humble man who inspired millions.

“He didn’t know who Cesar Chavez was,” she said. “So I educated him.”