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”.