Magazine article National Parks

Labor of Love

Magazine article National Parks

Labor of Love

Article excerpt

New California park site dedicated to the work of labor leader César Chavez.

In April 1966, on the steps of the California State Capitol, César Chavez stood in front of more than 10,000 people, his feet blistered, his body weary, and his spirit soaring. He had just led the longest protest march in U.S. history, some 300 miles from the farm town of Delano, California, to Sacramento. As a result, a massive grape grower that had been unwilling to negotiate with farm workers had finally capitulated.

In front of a jubilant audience, Chavez announced that they had done the impossible. He had just signed the first contract for farm workers in the United States. It was a great victory for Chavez, the charismatic farm-labor leader and civil-rights activist. "I remember with strong feelings the families who joined our movement and paid dues long before there was any hope of winning contracts," Chavez later said. "Sometimes, fathers and mothers would take money out of their meager food budgets just because they believed that farm workers could and must build their own union. I remember thinking then that with spirit like that... we had to win. No force on Earth could stop us."

In 1962, Chavez and activist Dolores Huerta founded the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), the first agricultural union in the country. Over four decades, the UFW secured unprecedented victories for workers, including the banishment of the crippling shorthandled hoe, the first union medical and retirement benefits, and the first contracts to stipulate bathrooms and clean drinking water in the fields.

These and other achievements are why President Obama established the César E. Chavez National Monument near Keene, California, on October 8. The 398th unit of the National Park System, it protects the historic property known as La Paz, which includes the Chavez family home and UFW's headquarters. It is the first National Park Service site dedicated to a contemporary Latino American.

"The National Park System is about more than beautiful places, it's about telling the story of America," says Emily Schrepf, Central Valley program manager for NPCA, which helped secure the designation through lobbying, advocacy, and community work over the last decade. "This new designation reflects the diversity of the United States, which had long been missing from the park system." It comes at a time when the Park Service is working to engage youth and minorities to better represent changing American demographics-and to secure more diverse advocates for the future.

Born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927, Chavez grew up working as a migrant farm worker, which meant inhaling pesticides, rubbing fingers raw, and living the hardships of one of the country's most marginalized groups. …

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