The National Park Service is recommending that Congress create a historic park to honor farm labor leader Cesar Chavez. It would be made up of four sites in California and a former church hall in Phoenix where the famous rallying cry “Si se puede” was popularized.
The recommendation came last week after a multi-year study of sites that are significant to the life of Chavez and the farm labor movement. Congress authorized the study in 2008, and the Park Service narrowed a list of about 100 sites to five for a two-state national historic park.
Marc Grossman, Chavez’s longtime spokesman, speechwriter and personal aide, said including sites in Arizona and California would be fitting because it would recognize the length and breadth of Chavez’s work.
As head of the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Arizona-born Chavez staged a huge grape boycott and countless field strikes, and forced growers to sign contracts providing better pay and working conditions to the predominantly Latino farmworkers. He is credited with inspiring millions of other Latinos in their fight for more educational opportunities, better housing and more political power.
UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta was at Chavez’s side at the Santa Rita Center, a downtown Phoenix church hall, during a 1972 fast that helped reshape Arizona’s political landscape. Chavez and other UFW leaders had been talking about a state law that restricted the rights of farmworkers to strike or boycott crops.
Farmworkers and other labor leaders were sounding a note of defeat. Huerta responded that they should think positively, saying: “Si se puede,” or “It can be done.”
Ultimately, thousands of farmworkers and supporters such as Coretta Scott King participated in rallies and Masses in downtown Phoenix, giving voice to the UFW slogan.
The Santa Rita Center, an extension of the Sacred Heart Church, is a small building on an inner-city street near the airport. Chicanos Por La Causa, a group that traces its roots to the activists who met there, opens it for some events. But it sits vacant most of the time.
The Park Service is recommending that the agency work with local communities to educate the public not only about Chavez, the farm labor movement and its organizers, but about the art and music associated with it, as well as contemporary struggles for human and labor rights, said Martha Crusius, the project manager for the site study.
The sites in California are:
●The Forty Acres National Historic Landmark in Delano, home to the union hall where grape growers signed their first union contracts after five years of grape strikes and boycotts. It was also here that Chavez held his other public fast, this one to protest the use of pesticides. The building serves as a field office for the UFW.
●The Filipino Community Hall in Delano, which became a symbol of multiethnic unity during the 1960s, serving as a joint headquarters for farm labor movements led by Filipino organizer Larry Itliong and Chavez.
●McDonnell Hall in San Jose, recognized as the place Chavez made his start as a community organizer.
●Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz in Keene, which served as the UFW’s planning and coordination center starting in 1971. It’s where Chavez and many organizers lived, trained and strategized, and Chavez taught farmworkers how to write contracts and negotiate with growers. President Obama last year designated part of this 187-acre site, known more simply as “La Paz,” as the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument.
Persuading Congress to designate the five sites as a national historic park could be tough.
“Not a lot is happening in Congress right now, and it’s hard to get anything passed among the deadlock between the two parties,” said Ron Sundergill of the National Parks Conservation Association. “So, we’ll see.”