Obama honours late Hispanic hero
“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.”