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Biden’s Cesar Chavez bust in the Oval Office signals a new era for Latinos, activists hope: ‘It shows that he’s authentic’

A sculpted bust of Cesar Chavez oversees a collection of framed family photos on a table behind President Biden's desk in the Oval Office. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Paul Chavez was watching TV coverage of President Biden’s first address from the Oval Office on Wednesday when he suddenly recognized the sculpture right behind him.

It was his father.

The 22-inch-tall bronze bust of civil rights and farm labor leader Cesar Chavez stood just behind the Resolute Desk, surrounded by portraits of the president and his family.

“We were just as surprised and thrilled as everybody else to see its placement, it was so prominent,” Paul Chavez, 63, told The Washington Post late Wednesday. “We were excited not just because it was a bust of my father, but what it represented. To us, it was an affirmation of the importance and the contributions of our community, immigrants and Latinos.”

For many Latino leaders like Chavez’s son, it spoke volumes that Biden decided to make the community organizer’s bust a central piece of Oval Office decor. They say it symbolizes his commitment to the Latino community and marks the beginning of a new relationship with a president they hope is far less adversarial than his predecessor.

“It sent a strong message that he understands the pain and the angst that we’ve been feeling,” Darryl Morin, president of the advocacy group Forward Latino, told The Post. “It shows that he’s authentic and his concern is for real.”

President Biden on Jan. 20 signed a number of executive orders on his coronavirus, immigration and climate policies. (Video: The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, Biden signed an executive order repealing the travel ban from several majority-Muslim countries, while reversing the Trump administration’s directive that attempted to exclude noncitizens from being counted in the census. He also asked the Department of Homeland Security to continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protecting “dreamers” from deportation and issuing work permits to those who still met the program’s criteria.

Other major immigration overhauls outlined Wednesday included stopping construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and a bill proposing an eight-year path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States including farmworkers, DACA recipients and temporary protected status holders.

Chavez, a first-generation American born outside Yuma, Ariz., became a migrant farmworker at age 11 when his family lost their farm. In 1962, after years of laboring in the fields, vineyards and orchards under harsh conditions, he founded the National Farm Workers Association, a pivotal farmworkers union that would later become the United Farm Workers.

About a week ago, Biden’s transition team asked the Cesar Chavez Foundation for a bust to display in the Oval Office, his son said. The sculpture, designed by artist Paul A. Suarez, had been on display at the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument’s visitor center in Keene, Calif., where Chavez lived and worked during the last 25 years of his life.

“We told them immediately that we’d be honored to share the bust with the White House,” said Paul Chavez, who also serves as the president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation.

A look inside Biden’s Oval Office

Soon, the bust was on its way to the nation’s capital where it would share the room with a massive portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, paintings of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, as well as busts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Although Paul Chavez knew the sculpture would be placed inside the Oval Office, it wasn’t until Wednesday evening’s televised speech that he realized Biden had staged his father’s bust right behind his desk.

Morin, who was also watching the president’s first speech from the Oval Office with his family, jumped out of his seat when he recognized the bust. “That’s Cesar Chavez! That’s Cesar Chavez!” Morin shouted.

“I was overwhelmed with pride and became quite emotional, as our community has suffered so much, particularly over these last four years,” Morin said.

The gesture meant much more to Morin because it was accompanied by the bill outlining a pathway to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants. “While it’s Day One, I cannot remember in our nation’s history any other president that has done more for our community on his first day as president,” Morin said.

Others viewed Biden’s choice to honor Chavez, who died never earning more than $6,000 a year as a farmworker, as a testament to his support of farmworkers.

“For the president to have Cesar’s bust there and to do it so prominently, to have it so visibly, this is like a message to the world: These are the people we have to take care of,” Dolores Huerta, a labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Chavez, told The Post. “This is what being a president is, to take care of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

For Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers, the bust signals Biden’s dedication to battling for immigrants.

“It is not [just a] word,” Romero told The Post. “It is a commitment that he made to our community, to our immigration community, to farmworkers. It is, for the first time in many years, the commitment at the top level to help our immigrant community, who contributes to our economy.”

Chavez’s son said he hopes the gesture is just the beginning of Biden’s work repairing the White House’s relationship with the Latino community.

“This is a good start,” Paul Chavez said. “His actions on Day One speak to goods things to come, but we also know that there will be pressure on the president and the administration to do things that may not favor the Latino community. So it’s incumbent on us that we rejoice on what happened today but that we continue to push for progress.”