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Historical Back Stories on Cesar Chavez and La Paz
10/09/2012

Historical Back Stories on Cesar Chavez and La Paz


• A spiritual harbor. Cesar Chavez’s life was filled with conflict. After moving the United Farm Workers’ headquarters in 1971 from Delano to La Paz, on 187 acres in the small Tehachapi mountain town of Keene, Chavez began building a community of fellow union members and volunteers who worked with him full time for social justice. La Paz became a spiritual harbor for him and other movement staff who were “paid” $5 a week (doubled to $10 a week in the late ‘70s) plus room and board. La Paz offered them respite from tough struggles in the fields and cities.

• Chavez’s morning ritual. Most mornings before dawn when he was at La Paz Chavez climbed a large hill across the railroad tracks just east of his house at La Paz. He watched the sunrise while meditating and practicing his yoga. He would still be at work in his nearby office before everyone else. Office hours were 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

• Where the work was done. Thousands of farm workers and supporters flowed through La Paz over the decades to plan and do the daily work of the movement—from organizing and boycotting to contract bargaining and administration to financial management. La Paz was where many of the most important UFW campaigns—from the early 1970s to 1993, when Chavez died—were devised, planned and often coordinated. They included landmark field strikes, national and international boycotts, and large-scale political campaigns in California and Arizona. Chavez dispatched hundreds of grape strikers and union volunteers and their families to cities across North America to organize the successful second grape boycott in 1973 in the east wing of what is now Villa La Paz. La Paz hosted strategy and planning that led to enactment of California’s landmark 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the nation’s first and only law letting farm workers organize and bargain. La Paz is also where the daily work of the UFW and the Cesar Chavez Foundation continues.

• More than a union. Chavez was an innovator, always searching for new ways of doing things. He realized in 1962 that it would take a movement as well as a union to overcome the crippling injustices farm workers faced both inside and outside the workplace. He modeled his movement on the social unionism of the early 20th Century when many U.S. union members were also immigrants who didn’t speak English and suffered discrimination. So in addition to union organizing, Chavez set up a co-op gas station, a credit union, health clinics, day care and service centers, the first retirement home for elderly displaced Filipino American farm workers plus other high-quality affordable housing and educational Spanish-language radio stations. All of them were either created or coordinated at La Paz.

• Educational center. Chavez said his job as an organizer was helping ordinary people do extraordinary things. So he established an educational center during the 1970s in the 17,000 square foot Mission style structure that is now Villa La Paz. There, generations of farm worker leaders learned to run their own union by organizing, negotiating and administering union contracts, and resolving differences with growers.

• La Paz community life. Roughly 250 people, mostly volunteer staff and their families, lived and labored at La Paz at any one time from the 1970s on. Chavez loved bringing residents together for community meetings and to learn about the latest movement developments. La Paz boasted a Montessori school in the west wing of Villa La Paz. A large organic community garden filled several acres behind Villa La Paz; in the late ‘70s Chavez got volunteer staff to leave their offices and work with him there on Saturdays. A fully equipped community kitchen across from Chavez’s house, “Pan y Vino” (Bread and Wine), was where residents and visitors often gathered to share meals. Families lived in small homes or trailers moved onto the grounds while most single volunteers were housed in a rambling former tuberculosis hospital. During the mid- and late-‘70s, when La Paz experienced its own baby boom, it seemed almost every other Saturday night there was a wedding of union members or volunteers. No one had money, so Chavez ensured each couple was provided with a ceremony in the east wing of Villa La Paz, flowers, a full dinner, beer and a band or DJ for the dance—as well as at least 200 wedding guests.

Chavez believed in working hard, but also in celebrating life. So he brought people together for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and many union observances. Passover Seders were held. Residents gathered early in the morning outside Chavez’s house to sing Las Mananitas (happy birthday) on his birthday, March 31, which the UFW then celebrated as Founder’s Day because it was the day in 1962 when he began building what became the UFW.

• Chavez house. People were surprised at Chavez’s humble lifestyle. He spent his last 22 years living in a small wood-frame two-bedroom home on the grounds. A chain-link fence still surrounding the house was erected in 1971, after agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives notified the UFW of a plot to assassinate Chavez, one of several threats on his life over the years. In the late ‘70s he was given two beautiful German Shepherds he trained himself and named Boycott and Huelga (strike). They became his “best friends,” went with him everywhere at La Paz and traveled in the station wagon in which he was driven across California and Arizona. He credited the dogs for his commitments to vegetarianism and animal rights.

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