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Saturday, Oct 06 2012 08:00 PM

La Paz had a long road to federal recognition

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

The property known as La Paz that President Obama will visit Monday has come a long way since the days when the Cesar Chavez Foundation had to buy it in secret.

The 187-acre Keene area property that Obama last week declared a National Historic Monument was built in 1929 as Stony Brook Retreat, a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.

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United Farm Workers highlights

1967 -- Cesar Chavez's younger brother Richard and a Chavez aide, Leroy Chatfield, purchase 40 acres of land at Garces Highway West and Mettler Road just west of Delano for $2,700 on behalf of the National Farm Workers Service Center, predecessor of the Cesar Chavez Foundation. The land is for farm worker movement headquarters, an affordable co-op gas station, a clinic and a retirement home, among other things. The compound is dubbed "Forty Acres."

1968 -- U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy meets with Cesar Chavez at Forty Acres shortly before Chavez ends a 25-day fast to rededicate the movement to nonviolence.

1971 -- The movement relocates from Forty Acres to the former Stonybrook tuberculosis sanitarium in Keene, east of Bakersfield. It is named Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz, or La Paz for short. Cesar Chavez lives and works there with movement staff and volunteers from 1971 until his death.

1988 -- Cesar Chavez stages a 36-day fast at La Paz to protest the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their families.

1993 -- Cesar Chavez dies in San Luis, a small village near Yuma, Ariz.; he is lauded by President Clinton and Mexican President Carlos Salinas. He is buried at La Paz.

1994 -- President Clinton posthumously awards Cesar Chavez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

2004 -- The UFW opens the National Chavez Center at La Paz. It includes a museum and memorial garden dedicated to the legacy of Cesar Chavez.

2008 -- The U.S. Department of the Interior declares Forty Acres a National Historic Landmark. A dedication ceremony attended by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar takes place there three years later.

2012 May -- President Obama awards UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

2012 October -- President Obama names La Paz a National Historic Monument.

Sources: UFW, White House, Californian research

Monday's event

Highway 58 is expected to be busy Monday as thousands of guests invited to attend the dedication of the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene travel the road.

The hustle and bustle will be further complicated by strict security and occasional road closures that will surround President Barack Obama's attendance at the event.

The president will fly into Bakersfield's Meadows Field at about 9 a.m. then travel to Keene where he will attend the dedication ceremony.

Guests will be shuttled to Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz -- or Our Lady Queen of Peace -- from a staging area north of Tehachapi by bus.

A presidential motorcade will also travel along Highway 58 and in the Keene area on Monday, according to California Highway Patrol reports.

United Farm Workers wanted to buy the county-owned campus to establish the Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz Educational Retreat Center, but was afraid grower-friendly county officials wouldn't sell to them. In 1970, a wealthy, sympathetic Hollywood movie producer bought it and immediately sold it to the organization that is now the foundation for $1.

Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz (Our Lady, Queen of Peace) -- or La Paz, for short -- is in the Tehachapi Mountains just north of Keene and consists of 26 historic buildings, as well as the Cesar Chavez Memorial Garden, where UFW co-founder Cesar Chavez is buried.

The union chose the property in part because of its distance from the union's first headquarters site in Delano, said longtime UFW spokesman Marc Grossman, who lived and worked at La Paz for several years along with Chavez and other staff and volunteers.

"Cesar was afraid that if the headquarters was out there, the workers would always come to him instead of developing their own indigenous leadership," Grossman said.

Like the farm worker movement's previous headquarters on the Delano property known as Forty Acres, La Paz was a hub of social and political activism.

"From its inception in 1962, UFW was much more than a union," Grossman said.

"Because the dilemmas facing farm workers were so daunting -- working conditions, pay, housing, lack of educational opportunities, health care -- Cesar modeled the UFW after the unions of the early 20th century that offered English classes and social services," he said.

So La Paz had classrooms where activists learned how to organize workers and negotiate contracts, meeting rooms for planning, small homes for families and dormitories for singles.

It seemed like every other weekend there was a wedding there, Grossman said. Nobody had any money back then, so the union provided couples with a venue, a band or a D.J., dinner and some wedding presents.

Ray Gonzales, a former farm worker who won a seat in the California Assembly in 1972, recalls speaking with union leaders at La Paz when he was running for office. At the time, the union was widely viewed as radical and dangerous.

"They asked what they could do to help," he said. "I told them, 'Whatever you do, don't endorse me. I need your troops, but don't endorse me publicly."

The UFW's current president, Arturo Rodriguez, lived on the campus for a time and still resides in a home he purchased nearby.

He has fond memories of raising children at La Paz.

"It's the biggest playground you could ever imagine," Rodriguez said.

Today, the campus is widely recognized as a special, even spiritual place where people come to pay their respects to Chavez and all that he stood for, Rodriguez added.

"It's far beyond just a bunch of union buildings," he said. "People come from all over the world to visit because it's about respect, human dignity, self respect and social justice throughout the world."

The foundation, which owns both La Paz and Forty Acres, will donate a portion of La Paz to the federal government for the establishment of the monument, which will include a visitors center containing Cesar Chavez's office, UFW legal aid offices, the home of Cesar and Helen Chavez and the Chavez Memorial Garden containing Chavez's grave site, among other things.

The UFW will still use the buildings it now operates in, however. And Chavez's widow, who still lives in the modest, two-bedroom home the couple shared when he lived, will be welcome to stay in her home for the rest of her life.

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