Obama honours late Hispanic hero


The president needs the Hispanic vote, and it seems that he almost certainly has it

IT WAS a strange and wonderful day. As you walked down the driveway of the compound, and just before you went through security – “It’s like herding cats,” sighed a security man, not unkindly – you could see a mariachi band on the verandah of one of the old buildings, and the notes from its brass section wafted over the pomegranate bushes. The mariachi band wore a grey uniform, with yellow flowers in the hair of its young girl singers, yellow cravats for the young boys.

It looked like paradise.

Later the national anthem would be sung by Veronica Gomez (28), an executive assistant at the United Farm Workers union. “I wasn’t nervous at all,” she said.

There were recorded versions of God Bless America and My Country ’Tis of Thee piped in to the garden of the Cesar Chavez Foundation here at La Paz, on the edge of the California wilderness.

And then the president appeared in the hot sunshine. Tall, tidy and handsome in a white shirt and a silver tie. America the beautiful, indeed. Relaxed. And cool. Like Veronica, he didn’t seem nervous at all. His staff call him No Drama Obama. He is charming; he doesn’t have Clinton’s need to connect.

As he spoke, red hawks wheeled above him and a pale half moon stood in a flawless blue sky.

Obama had come to declare the 105 acres of the Cesar E Chavez compound, a national monument, and its lands America’s 398th national park. He spoke with great authority about the remarkable labour leader after whom it is named. Chavez once counted that he had attended 65 elementary schools, as his parents worked as migrant pickers, following crops as they ripened – “the invisible farmers who picked the nation’s food”, as Obama put it. “Cesar worked for 20 years as a union organiser without a single major victory. Think about that . . . This is the story of my ancestors, of your ancestors,” said the president. “You can make it if you never, ever give up.”

Unfortunately for the American Secret Service, in the 1970s and after bitter political disappointments, Chavez bought this site, an old TB sanitorium, in the mountains on the edge of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, high up in the California mountains, in a little narrow valley of its own.

It was to be the base for the United Farm Workers union, which aimed to organise the thousands of Hispanic workers who toiled in the rich San Joaquin Valley below. It was where Chavez lived with his wife, Helen, and eight children, and was designed to be a refuge for union activists. It was called after Our Lady Queen Of Peace – La Paz for short.

The shuttle buses scheduled to bring a steady stream of people to La Paz were halted early in the morning when it was decided to extend the reach of a security sweep. We didn’t see another bus for an hour and a half. Dana Dierkes, one of the National Park Rangers drafted in to look after us, said the location “was challenging without a president; it’s even more challenging with a president”.

“I’m glad security’s tight,” said Ray Hendrick, who said he was staying nearby in a gated community. “I worry about this president.”

We had been standing in the mountain car park as dawn broke. We were in a queue about a kilometre long, composed of old ladies in shawls, young people in fleeces and men and women in suits, perhaps from Washington. “They’ve moved the VIP line four times already,” said the man in the steelworkers’ union polo shirt.

Sitting on the bus, when we finally boarded, was Julia Chavez Villarino, one of Cesar’s 32 grandchildren. Her mother, Liz Chavez Villarino, worked for the union and Julia spent much of her childhood at La Paz.

“He was never there anyways,” said Julia, who was seven when he died. She loved her grandfather but it is her grandmother Helen whom she remembers best, and who still lives at La Paz.

In front of the president’s lectern as he spoke, Hispanic Americans were out in force to honour their greatest leader. The Latina secretary for labour, Hilda Solis, and secretary of the interior Ken Salazar both spoke to remind the crowd that Obama had appointed more Latinos to positions of power than any other president. The president needs the Hispanic vote, and he almost certainly has it. It is an electoral marriage of many years’ standing. A faint cry of “Four more years” went up at one point.

However, among the Mexican red T-shirts of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, and the purple shirt of a war veteran who had been decorated with a Purple Heart, was the T-shirt of the current immigration campaign bearing the sarcastic slogan: “Who Would Jesus Deport?”

Obama has deported 400,000 illegal immigrants a year for the past three years. His recent amnesty for those who were brought to the US illegally as children was designed to offset this. The idealist’s confrontation with icy real politik was one of the unspoken themes of the day.

It was Cesar Chavez who first declared “Si Se Puede”, in his fight for the nation’s agricultural workers. This was the slogan subsequently translated by Obama as “Yes we can”.

Chavez, who studied and practised the non-violent methods of Mahatma Gandhi, also fought some of the filthiest battles of American labour history, against the agricultural growers of California. As one of his biographers, Robert Taylor, puts it in a history video on show in the little Chavez museum today: “They got the crap beat out of them.”