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Birthplace of Change Stirs Anew

Cruz Bustamante's campaign strikes a chord in Delano, a town that symbolizes the Latino struggle for political power.

September 17, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

DELANO, Calif. — An abandoned gas station squats on a strip of asphalt among the spidery grapevines of the lower San Joaquin Valley. No plaque commemorates what happened here. No tour guide points out the dusty little room where one of the last century's signature political events occurred.

Even so, the spot has assumed new importance this election season. This is where Cesar Chavez staged his famed 25-day hunger strike in 1968 to call attention to the plight of farm laborers. It's also where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy visited him, thereby elevating a regional labor dispute into a national civil rights cause.

As a result, this place, and this town, are considered the birthplace of the farm-labor movement and an important landmark in the Latino struggle for political power. That's why gubernatorial candidate Cruz Bustamante came here recently to accept the endorsement of the union Chavez founded, the United Farm Workers. While hardly the galvanizing force it was under Chavez, who died in 1992, the UFW black eagle is still an important symbol of Latino pride, and Bustamante's visit served to connect the hallowed past with the suddenly promising future.

"It's a perfect time for him," said Daniel Romero, 55, a union representative who will be helping to get out the vote on election day. "He's been there for the community. Everyone knows Bustamante."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Cesar Chavez -- An article in Wednesday's California section about how residents of Delano view the recall election gave an incorrect date for the death of Cesar Chavez. He died in 1993, not 1992.

Just when election day falls became unclear Monday when a federal appeals court postponed the scheduled Oct. 7 vote because Los Angeles and other counties would have to use controversial punch-card voting machines.

But whatever happens when the voting takes place, Bustamante's candidacy has thrust this farm town of 39,000 back onto the stage of history. Latino activists say everything Bustamante is benefiting from and fighting for has roots in the struggles of the grape pickers in the '60s and '70s. As Mayor Art Armendariz puts it, "It all started here."

The attention is not necessarily welcome, for Delano has always struggled to reach an accommodation with the small brown man who put it on the map.

On the one hand, much has been done to erase the city's past rancor toward the charismatic labor leader. The city has named a park and a high school for Chavez. A big sign downtown announces, "Delano, International Community Working Together."

That's not just Chamber of Commerce gloss, city officials say. "Delano is a unified community today," said Michele Carr, the assistant city manager. "Everybody wants the same things -- good schools, good roads."

On the other hand, hard feelings remain. When Mayor Armendariz lowered the flag to half-staff the day Chavez died, more than a few people were angry.

"I took a beating for that," he said. Critics wanted to know why the city should mourn a man who had stirred up farm workers and launched a nationwide grape boycott that cost local growers millions of dollars. People recalled outbreaks of violence on the picket lines.

Armendariz said Chavez had become a national figure. As for violence, Romero said, Chavez always preached peace, even after the gas station he fasted in was firebombed.

Today, the gas station is boarded up and the little room where Chavez fasted is used for storage. Romero is not sure what happened to the cot Chavez slept on. "You appreciate history, but at the same time, you're moving forward," Romero said.

The son of a Los Angeles steelworker, Romero, a short, bespectacled man with the wide eyes and soft voice of the lifelong idealist, moved to Delano in 1976. At the time, a lot of angry young Latinos were openly advocating violence against a system they didn't feel part of.

"It's so easy to destroy," Romero recalled Chavez telling the young firebrands. "We have a good government system."

If they would read the Constitution, he told them, "it provides fairness and equality. What is bad about it is the representatives. Our job is to get the right people."

Over the years, Romero watched Chavez' vision come true. "Now we have mayors, council members, Congress people," he said.

The Delano City Council has four minority members. The governor may be next. But Romero knows that depends on getting Latinos out to vote.

Heavily Latino Kern County has one of the lowest voter turnout records in the state. In the 2000 election only 45% of eligible voters cast ballots. The failure of Latinos to vote in numbers commensurate with their share of the state's population is a sore spot. "Why is there a certain sense of apathy, of not really caring?" Romero asked. "The power is there."

Can Bustamante awaken it? "We'll know as we get closer" to the election, he said.

Although Bustamante has urged a "no" vote on the recall, his supporters here do little to conceal their lack of enthusiasm for Gov. Gray Davis. "I tell people you've got two votes," said Armendariz. "Vote no on recall if you like, but vote yes on Cruz."

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