San Francisco Chronicle: California could get a new national park honoring César Chávez
By Kurtis Alexander
California could open its first national park in almost a decade under a recently revived plan to commemorate labor leader César Chávez and the saga of farmworkers.
The proposed César E. Chávez and the Farmworker Movement National Historical Park, based outside Bakersfield and possibly extending to the Bay Area, would offer the public a chance to visit a constellation of landmarks central to the civil rights story of Mexican Americans. The success of the proposal is uncertain given the sharply politicized climate in Washington, but if it comes to fruition, it would be the first national park to honor this chapter of American history.
Among the sites proposed for inclusion in the new park is Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in the rural Kern County town of Keene. Also included, if a deal can be reached with the current property owner, would be McDonnell Hall in San Jose, where Chavez and other activists once famously organized. Additionally, a historic trail following the 300-mile labor march by farmworkers from Kern County to Sacramento in 1966 would be established.
While supporters of the park have been pushing the idea for two decades, the plan gained new life this month with the introduction of a federal bill to create the park. The legislation was authored by two California Democrats, Sen. Alex Padilla and Congressman Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert.
“The national park status is a proper tribute to an icon who’s not just known as an organizer for labor rights but civil rights and social justice more broadly,” Padilla told The Chronicle.
While the National Park Service is often associated with preserving natural environments, such as mountains and canyons, about 60 of the roughly 425 properties managed by the agency are designated as “national historical parks” and commemorate people or events. These include the birthplaces of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and battlefields of the Civil and Revolutionary wars.
Padilla, who met Chávez in Cambridge, Mass., as a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said adding the labor leader to the park service mix would help address the nation’s gap in representing “the full culture and diverse legacy of all Americans.”
Chávez was born in Yuma, Ariz., in 1927. He moved to California with his family during the Great Depression, where his activism took hold. He started as a community organizer in San Jose and evolved into a labor rights force in the San Joaquin Valley, co-founding the powerful National Farm Workers Association, which later became United Farm Workers of America.
He’s known for helping field workers, many of whom were Mexican immigrants, get higher pay, health care and better working conditions. He died in 1993.
The idea of dedicating a national park to Chávez has been supported by a broad coalition of Latino rights groups, labor organizations and park advocates since at least 2002. His family also backs the proposal.
“It’s important to us that people understand my dad wasn’t so different than the people who will visit these (future park) sites,” said Paul Chavez, 65, the son of César. “He didn’t come from a lot of money. He didn’t have the opportunity to get a higher education. But with all that said, he showed that if you go out and live a principled life, we can make a difference.”
The planning of the park officially began with bipartisan legislation in 2007. A bill authored by former Democratic Congresswoman Hilda Solis of California and late Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona called for studying what sites should be included.
As the results of the study began trickling in, President Barack Obama in 2012 used his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish the César E. Chávez National Monument. The monument, which is managed by the park service but doesn’t have the same prestige as a park, includes part of a property known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz in Keene. This site was the home and workplace of the Chávez family. It is proposed as the headquarters of the national park.
The other sites to be included in the park, under the pending legislation, are among those that were studied per the Congressional order and ultimately found worthy of national park status.
They include the birthplace of the farmworkers union at a spot known as “The Forty Acres” in the Kern County community of Delano, the site of a famous farmworker fast at a place called Santa Rita Center in Phoenix and potentially McDonnell Hall in San Jose.
McDonnell Hall, located behind Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the Mayfair neighborhood, is where Chavez planned voter registration drives, plotted lawsuits and organized legislative campaigns.
“This hall was a place where many civic initiatives were launched,” said Paul Chavez, who was among six of eight of César’s children born in San Jose.
The modest building, already designated as a National Historic Landmark, would likely receive funding for upgrades and educational displays if it became part of the new national park.
Several other sites studied under the Congressional directive were also found to be fit for the park, though they’re not included in the legislation because they posed logistical challenges. Sometimes, the owners of the property were not interested in welcoming the public. These areas, however, could be added to the park in the future.
While the legislation includes only the most workable sites, its success is uncertain given the divisiveness in Congress. Many in Washington, particularly Republicans, have been hesitant to create new parks when existing parks are already short of funds. The legislation establishing the César Chávez park does not come with money. The park would depend on Congress increasing the budget of the National Park Service for funding in future years.
The last new park established by Congress in California was Pinnacles National Park, which was upgraded from a national monument to a national park in 2013.
The proposal for the César Chávez park, which is cosponsored by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Arizona Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Ruben Gallego, has no Republican sponsors.
Jon Jarvis, former director of the National Park Service who helped establish the César Chávez monument before retiring in 2017, said he thinks broader support for the new legislation could come if it were bundled into a package of park and conservation proposals, providing more for lawmakers to like.
“If there’s anything left in our political world that is bipartisan, it’s generally parks,” Jarvis said. “That said, on a given Congressional calendar, there are hundreds of pieces of legislation introduced and few of them are passed. It all depends on what else is going on.”
Padilla and the supporters are hopeful that there will be enough votes to push the legislation through.
“There has been such ongoing support for César Chávez,” said Sally Garcia, an outreach manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “This would be a really great representation of the incredible Latino population in California that needs to be highlighted.”
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