Backpage: La Paz

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Photos by Serina Duarte and Omar Villalpando

Design by Serina Duarte and Pablo Gandara

Nestled in the Tehachapi Mountains, between San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert, rugged, peaks and great oak stand guard, protecting a sacred plot of land. In this safe haven stands a simple wooden cross, with an iron crucifix behind a small granite headstone. Saint Francis of Assisi and La Virgen de Guadalupe stand on each end of a consecrated rose garden in Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz (Our Lady Queen of Peace), the home and burial site of Cesar Chavez, one of America’s great humanitarian activists of the 20th century.

In the midst of a mountain chain that almost divided the state into Northern California and Southern California twice, Cesar Chavez started a revolution that united people to fight for the rights of the migrant farm workers. His bold but nonviolent fight for social change, influenced by his deep faith in God and examples of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he fought this fight with boycotts, fasts, marches and strikes—and thousands of people joined his crusade. Cries of ¡Si Se Puede! and ¡Huelga! carried loudly across the nation’s streets all the way to Washington. He became the first American to found a successful farm workers union achieving bargaining power with growers in 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (now the United Farm Workers of America.)

His mortal remains lie at rest in La Paz, but his cause lives on in the National Chavez Center. His son, Paul F. Chavez, president, opened its doors and homes to Marcha Migrante VII travelers. This year, taking “A Walk with Cesar,” marchers celebrated the 50th year of service of the United Farm Workers following its footsteps into some of the pivotal and painful events and struggles of the past. Paul Chavez said after his father’s death that La Paz began to deteriorate with many projects started but unfinished. Promising his mother they would remain, he said they had to start thinking about the next 50 years. After several failed attempts, they found someone to work with to create a master plan with a vision of the future with his father’s cause at the forefront.

“The easy part was my father’s gravesite,” he said. “That is one thing that will never change. It is a two-person Catholic graveyard, consecrated by the church.”

Chavez said creating an atmosphere of remembrance of his father’s cause and educating people on the struggles of the migrant worker became the vision for the Chavez Center, targeting much of the education to children.

“Kids, they don’t know where the food comes from, they think it comes from the supermarket,” he said. “They don’t know that there are immigrants working hard every day under terrible conditions and being taken advantage of that labor to bring food to their tables. We use my father’s legacy to tell their stories.”

He said his father really believed migrant farmers could build their own union, be strong, independent and represent themselves fairly and peacefully.

“The poorest of the poor and the least educated of society could take on the biggest and most powerful industry and could beat them,” he said. “He really believed it. He saw migrant farm workers from San Ysidro to the Napa Valley coming here to be educated with the skills to negotiate as a collective bargaining unit and how to do arbitration.”

Set on a sprawling 187 acres, La Paz was a humble home for Cesar Chavez for more than 25 years, a respite from the battles in the fields and cities and a place to gather to unite for the cause. Paul Chavez took the group to the center’s newest facility, Villa La Paz.

Once a sanitarium and tuberculosis facility, the children’s hospital is now home to a state-of-the-art conference and educational center. Paul Chavez said this is just the beginning of a vision to bring in housing, gardens and facilities to accommodate people that travel to La Paz, added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 2010. He said he waits for a call from Washington that declares the site as a national historical landmark and possibly an addition to the National Park System.

Paul Chavez said though the name has changed, he would always remember the place he grew up as “Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz, Our Lady Queen of Peace Educational Center, that is the name my father gave this place,” he said.

The queen of peace smiles beatifically at the peaceful place of rest for a humble American giant. La Paz is more than the name of a retreat, it was the strategy and guide for a loud but peaceful human rights revolution.

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