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Recognition for Chavez advances

House OKs possible national status for sites in the labor leader's life.

July 11, 2007|Claudia Lauer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sites associated with the life and work of Cesar E. Chavez, the farm labor organizer and activist, will be considered for national historic landmark status or addition to the National Register of Historic Places under legislation passed Tuesday by the House.

The bill, approved by voice vote, authorizes the Interior Department to study locations where Chavez lived and worked, determine appropriate methods for preserving and interpreting those sites, and decide which meet the criteria for listing on the register or designation as a historic landmark. Similar legislation awaits action in the Senate.

Though the measure is a step forward in the campaign to commemorate Chavez's work, there have been many setbacks to such recognition in the last few years. Lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill have introduced bills to study the sites important in his life, to posthumously award him the Congressional Gold Medal (Congress' highest award for distinguished achievement) and to declare a national holiday honoring him.

Few gained enough momentum to pass; others stalled in committee when Republicans controlled Congress.

"There are rules in place that disallow any legislation that would designate a space of time to recognize a person. There are also rules that prevent legislation for a new holiday to be introduced," said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto).

"The Republicans came up with these rules when they were in charge of the House. They knew that we would eventually come up with minorities that we wanted to honor," he said.

In every congressional session for the last six years, Baca has sponsored legislation to establish a national holiday honoring Chavez, whose United Farm Workers led a five-year nationwide boycott of California grape growers that resulted in the first union contract between the growers and migrant laborers.

"It took almost 14 years for [supporters of] Martin Luther King Jr. to pass a holiday," he said. "I'm not going to give up."

Several Republican House members from California's Central Valley declined to co-sponsor the resolution authorizing the study on Chavez, who fought against large agribusinesses.

The bill being considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sponsored by Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Ken Salazar of Colorado, is similar to the House legislation.

McCain has sought a study of Chavez-related sites in each of the last four sessions.

In 2003, his bill passed by unanimous consent, but the issue never came to a vote in the House.

United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez on Tuesday praised the House's action, calling the bill "a powerful vehicle to introduce a new generation of Americans to the life of Cesar Chavez and the history of farm labor movement."

Among the sites under consideration are the farm near Yuma, Ariz., where Chavez was born in 1927, and two in California: east San Jose -- where he began his work as a labor organizer after returning from World War II -- and Delano, where he led the grape boycott.

"I am proud that the House recognized the importance of honoring his work and diversifying our national parks system by passing this legislation," said Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), the bill's primary sponsor. "I hope through this effort that future generations better understand the importance of sacrifice and improving the lives of others."

Eight states, including California and Arizona, have honored Chavez with an official holiday.

Several municipalities have named local parks or streets after the labor leader, who died in 1993 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton.

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claudia.lauer@latimes.com

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