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Efforts to Honor Chavez Hit Barriers in Congress

A decade after the labor leader's death, key bills to designate a national holiday and preserve significant sites languish.

June 29, 2003|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

SALINAS, Calif. — Thirty-two years ago, a judge here jailed Cesar Chavez for refusing to call off a boycott of the world's largest lettuce company.

The boycott of Bud Antle Inc. had been going nowhere. But it became national news soon after the charismatic Chavez wound up behind bars in John Steinbeck's hometown.

During the 20 days Chavez was jailed, the widows of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. braved their way past unruly crowds to visit him, supporters erected a shrine to Chavez in the back of a pickup truck, and the ensuing media spectacle drew attention to the substandard working conditions of farm laborers.

A decade after his death, members of Congress are proposing that the National Park Service preserve the old Salinas jailhouse and other places in California and Arizona that have special significance in the life of Chavez, America's best-known Latino civil rights leader.

But that legislation and another bill to designate a national Chavez holiday have gone nowhere for two years, failing to gain the support of a single Republican representative from California.

Meanwhile, the future of some of the sites -- including the Salinas jail, which is slated for demolition -- is in jeopardy, dependent on politicians who have neither spoken out against the controversial father of the United Farm Workers union nor taken action to advance legislation to honor him.

A bill by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain calls for the park service to prepare an inventory of key sites in Chavez's life, from his family's old homestead near Yuma, to Forty Acres, the union headquarters in Delano, Calif., where Chavez in 1968 fasted for 25 days to promote nonviolence during a bitter strike against grape growers.

The study is the first step in a campaign by the Glendale-based Cesar E. Chavez Foundation and others to designate at least some of the sites as landmarks and string them together as an educational trail, similar to those established in the South to memorialize King and the civil rights movement.

With his slogan "Si, se puede" -- "Yes, it can be done" -- Chavez challenged some of the country's major agribusiness firms in the 1960s and '70s, as he sought to improve conditions for poorly paid Latino and Filipino farm workers who were sometimes deprived of toilets and fresh water.

By organizing workers and calling strikes, urging nationwide boycotts of grapes and lettuce -- and even resorting to hunger strikes in the manner of his hero Mohandas Gandhi -- Chavez won numerous concessions from growers. But he antagonized many farmers who felt that the labor leader demonized them all and wreaked economic havoc on their industry with protest tactics they likened to blackmail.

"In his life, he was very controversial. But it's been 10 years since he passed away, and the values he stood for are still shining bright, whereas some of the animosity has faded," said Chavez's son, Paul, who strongly supports a national educational trail of Chavez landmarks.

Time has indeed dulled opposition to Chavez. He was recently commemorated with a postage stamp, Los Angeles has named a street for him, and several states, including California, have declared new holidays in his name.

But the fledgling effort to secure historic sites remains fraught with problems. Supporters concede it may take a few years to convince certain lawmakers -- notably members of the California GOP delegation -- that Chavez is worthy of National Park Service honors.

Legislation by Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) failed to find momentum last year, leading backers to turn to McCain this year in hopes of garnering bipartisan support. McCain successfully shepherded the legislation through the Senate, but it has stalled in the House subcommittee that oversees national parks. A companion measure by Solis also remains in the House.

Similar legislation by Rep. Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino) asking President Bush to create a federal holiday honoring Chavez has stalled. Republican House members had previously passed a rule that prohibits lawmakers from proposing more federal holidays, arguing that there are already too many.

"I realize this may take a little time, but I am committed to getting it done," McCain said. "What has happened over time is that [Chavez] has begun to be appreciated for the causes he championed and the people he stood up for. King was also controversial. The woman who led the women's suffrage movement was also controversial. When people challenge the conventional wisdom of their time, they're usually controversial."

Some supporters asserted this month that the McCain bill may not pass this year because Republican Rep. George Radanovich, the Fresno-area farmer who heads the House subcommittee, had privately vowed that it would not receive a hearing. But his chief of staff flatly rejected the speculation, saying Radanovich has no position on the measure and has done nothing to scuttle it.

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