Obama dedicates Cesar Chavez National Monument
KEENE, Calif. – President Obama’s stop in this remote and sparsely populated San Joaquin Valley town was about as far off the campaign trail as a candidate could be so close to an election. But his message as he dedicated the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument was not without political significance, as he honored the legacy of a civil rights and labor leader whose “si se puede” credo was an inspiration for his own historic campaign four years ago.
Speaking on the 187-acre property that served as both home and operational headquarters for Chavez and his United Farm Workers movement, Obama said Chavez’s tenacity on behalf of a new generation of workers was part of “the story of who we are as Americans,” meriting such a tribute alongside other national monuments like the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon.
“It’s a story of natural wonders and modern marvels, of fierce battles and quiet progress. But it’s also 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,” Obama said.
Monday’s event was the sole official stop on a three-day, campaign-heavy trip, sandwiched between fundraising stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The designation means that taxpayers fund a portion of the president’s travel, while his campaign pays costs associated with his political travel.
Even without the banners reading “Forward,” his 2012 reelection slogan, and Marine band anthems replacing the usual campaign soundtrack, the electoral significance was clear.
Arturo S. Rodriguez, the president of the United Farm Workers, noted in his introduction of the president that Obama adopted Chavez’s “belief in ‘Si se puede.’ ”
“And when he was elected, he used his power to say yes,” Rodriguez said, before listing the appointment of Latino Cabinet secretaries (both of whom attended Monday’s event), a first Latina Supreme Court justice, and his support for a deferred action program that allows young undocumented workers to remain in the United States.
With time an increasingly precious commodity in a race that has shown new volatility after a long period of stasis, Obama is leaning on all the levers available to him for an advantage, including perhaps his biggest weapon: incumbency.
The dedication of the Cesar Chavez National Monument came not through legislative action but executive authority under the Antiquities Act. Though White House officials said it was a process long in the making, the formal dedication came as Obama’s campaign shifts toward a more intensive get-out-the-vote phase of its operation, one that includes a major focus on the Latino vote and will be augmented by labor muscle.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who attended the dedication and is also a national campaign co-chairman for the president’s reelection effort, said it was a fitting moment because of how Obama fits into Chavez’s legacy.
“I think that the president, a former organizer, was inspired by Cesar Chavez much as I’ve been inspired by Martin Luther King. And I truly believe that the president understands how important Cesar Chavez has been to giving him the opportunity to be president of the United States and help America to be a more open, more equal and more equal country,” he said.
Obama, who acknowledged Sunday that his performance in last week’s debate was lacking, said Monday that the nation could draw inspiration from one particular facet of Chavez’s decades of advocacy for farmworkers.
Chavez “worked for 20 years as an organizer without a single major victory,” the president said. “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.”
The nation today continues to work to fulfill his promise, the president said, noting the toll the recent economic downturn had taken on the Latino community specifically.
“Even with the strides we’ve made, too many workers are still being denied basic rights and simple respect. But thanks to the strength and character of the American people, we are making progress,” Obama said. “And even though we have a difficult road ahead, I know we can keep moving forward together.”
On the monument grounds, the excitement was almost palpable moments before Obama was to take the stage in a shady courtyard surrounded by thousands of people wearing shirts and hats bearing the UFW eagle logo, said Emily Schrepf, Central Valley program manager for the National Parks Conservation Assn.
“It took years of hard work to get to this moment in history,” Schrepf said. “There’s amazing energy in the air here today. And it’s official: The area is marked with pretty new green Cesar E. Chavez National Monument signs.”
A week ago, National Park Service officials figured about 4,000 people would attend the dedication. The official attendance Monday was 6,600, even after about 1,000 people saw their invitations rescinded by the UFW and Chavez foundation amid concerns about overbooking.
Among those turned down was Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a community activist from Kettleman City, an impoverished farming community north of Bakersfield where locals suspect a local toxic waste dump is the cause of severe birth defects.
“We were uninvited Sunday night,” said Mares-Alatorre, who had planned to accompany 13 other Kettleman City residents including her father, a farmworker who marched in Chavez’s funeral procession in 1993. “They said they were overbooked. We’re heartbroken.”
Obama quickly departed Keene to travel to the Bay Area for three fundraisers Monday evening. He closes the trip Tuesday with a rally at Ohio State University timed to coincide with the state’s voter registration deadline.
[For the record, 2:40 p.m., Oct. 8: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the National Parks Conservation Assn. as the National Park Foundation.]
Times staff writer Louis Sahagun contributed to this report.