The Cesar E. Chavez National Monument at Nuestra Señora Reina de la… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
The mission of America's 400 national parks is to reflect the country's history — no matter how uncomfortable or unflattering — which is why some contain depictions of slavery, the fight for women's suffrage, Japanese internment and the struggle for civil rights.
Now that archive could include the contributions of Latinos through the telling of the often tempestuous story of Cesar Chavez.
The National Park Service on Thursday announced plans to establish the Cesar Chavez National Historic Park, to recognize the achievements of the activist and the farm labor movement he led.
Chavez, who advocated for fair wages and humane conditions for field workers in California and elsewhere, also will be honored as an environmentalist and nonviolent human rights advocate.
"He is such an iconic figure for the Latino community, and has been for decades," said Hilda Solis, the former U.S. Labor secretary and California congresswoman. Solis co-sponsored legislation that in 2008 directed the park service to study the feasibility of a park honoring Chavez.
Appearing at a Latino Legacy Forum on Thursday at Ruben Salazar Park in East Los Angeles, Solis said the national park system ought to be more inclusive.
"We need to tell [Chavez's] story and preserve his legacy for all Americans," she said. "It's exciting. It gives me goose bumps."
The proposed park honoring Chavez, who died in 1993, would include four existing sites in California: the Forty Acres National Historic Landmark and the Filipino Community Hall in Delano, just north of Bakersfield; the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument at Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz in Keene, which served as the United Farm Workers headquarters and now is Chavez's burial site; and the route of the 1966 Delano-to-Sacramento march.
Chavez organized the 340-mile, nonviolent procession of Filipino and Latino farmworkers after angry growers sprayed striking grape pickers with pesticides. The march, which passed through the San Joaquin Valley and helped bring the plight of agricultural laborers to a national stage, led to a widespread boycott of table grapes.
By the time marchers reached Sacramento on Easter Sunday, the farmworkers had reached an accord with at least one grower.
One site in Arizona, the state where Chavez was born, also would become part of the historic park. The Santa Rita Center in Phoenix is the spot where, in 1972, Chavez staged a 24-day fast in protest of a state law limiting farmworkers' rights to strike.
The move to honor the Latino labor leader is part of a park service initiative to develop more historic sites that examine the lives and contributions of minorities. One of the park service's newest historic sites is Manzanar in the Eastern Sierra, which served as one of 10 Japanese internment camps during World War II.
A lack of diversity makes parks irrelevant to many Americans and is one reason visitation levels at national parks have been flat for the last decade, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said.
"We believe that we are America's storytellers and the keepers of our shared memories," Jarvis said during Thursday's event. "We need to tell the entire story.
"If I was running a business and my prime customers were all one demographic, then that business doesn't have a very strong future. Investing in building a new constituency that sees themselves and comes and visits the national parks is part of our mandate."
The approach to establishing a Chavez park is a template, Jarvis said, for determining future historic areas.
Starting in 2009, a group of historians from the park service and Cal State Fullerton evaluated approximately 100 sites related to Chavez and the farm labor movement to determine which should be included in a park unit. They wrote a comprehensive report, which is a stand-alone scholarly document as well as a reference for potential future historic designations.
Belinda Faustinos, who co-chaired the panel, said it was crucial that all Americans see themselves reflected in the nation's historic parks.
"People shy away from parks where they don't see their cultural history or anything about themselves," she said. "We Latinos might stick our heads into Yosemite or Santa Monica Mountains, but there is not much to relate to.… That's why this is so important.
"With Cesar Chavez, the younger generation doesn't hear about him in their history books. But here he is. And it's a national park. That's great."