I was barreling down Highway 46 West out of Bakersfield, anxious to leave the brown, smoggy air of California’s immense Central Valley behind me as I headed to the coast. I had left Death Valley earlier that morning, driving 300 miles through the desert and over mountains to my destination, a monastery in Big Sur, that was still two hours away. That’s when I saw a sign for the Cesar Chavez National Monument and pulled off the highway.
The road to the Chavez monument twisted through the tiny settlement of Keene: a deli with no cars parked outside and a post office, with a similarly empty parking lot. I wondered if I had made a wrong turn when the monument entrance beckoned, I parked and headed to the memorial garden of the site, La Paz, which once served as the national headquarters of Chavez’s United Farm Workers.
As I walked over I felt a wave of nostaglia for Chavez remembering his work as an organizer of undocumented Mexicans who worked in the vast agricultural fields out West.
I remembered old black-and-white films of planes gassing pesticides on the fields while people worked beneath them. I remembered Joan Baez singing Deportee, Woody Guthrie's song about the death of undocumented workers in a plane crash. I even remembered boycotting grapes for years when Chavez’s United Farm Workers movement went national and used innovative tactics to push for their demands in the field.
I was not prepared, however, to see the simple cross that marks the grave of Cesar Chavez, at rest beside a fountain honoring the foot soldiers in the fight for a union recognition and better working conditions. I was alone in a garden of faded roses that surrounded Chavez’s grave. No school groups pushed by as they do at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Atlanta; in fact no other visitors were in sight. The solitude of the place enveloped me.
Two women of Mexican descent, employees of the center, were busy decorating a Christmas tree in the lobby when I entered and they pointed me to an exhibit of photos that documented the strikes for recognition of the United Farm Workers in 1966 and the boycott of table grapes.
There was little information in the exhibit beyond the names of people pictured, caught at the moment when they put their livelihoods on the line by joining in the strike: A young Cesar Chavez alone with a Huelga (strike) sign. An older man, his hand bandaged, sitting, blocking a truckload of fruit. A scene from a political theater piece no doubt scourging the corporate farm boss.
A single side room depicts the austerity of a Mexican farm laborer’s housing, a bed, a stove, and a picture of the Virgen of Guadelupe predominate. At the end of the hall, Chavez’s office is maintained as it was when he died in 1993. The award he received from then Attorney General Robert Kennedy stands in the foreground, a symbol of the success of his organizing among migrant workers.
At the end of the exhibit is a small bulletin board where school children have posted hand drawn pictures and statements honoring Chavez. His image is in the center, topped by the three words he chanted on the strike line: “Yes We Can!.” “Si Se Puede,” which is still heard on some streets today.
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.