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Obama to dedicate Cesar Chavez National Monument in Central Valley

October 8, 2012 |  7:20 am

Cesar Chavez National Monument
President Obama will be reaching out to Latino voters Monday in a remote corner of California when he dedicates the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, underscoring their growing importance in presidential politics.

He's slated to make a bit of history when he visits Keene, home to the nation's first site to honor a contemporary Mexican American.

Most polls show Obama is expected to get about 70% of the Latino vote Nov. 6, and some of the country's fastest-growing Latino communities are in hotly contested battleground states such as North Carolina, Nevada, Virginia and Florida.

But Latinos also lag behind whites and blacks in voter turnout, a shadow over Democrats' hopes if the election hangs on razor-thin margins. Thousands of people are expected to descend on Nuestra Reina de La Paz for the event, where Obama will honor the soft-spoken, diminutive founder of the United Farm Workers who became an internationally recognized voice for the poor and disenfranchised.

"This is an important moment in history," said Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a Kettleman City community activist, who visited the site last week and planned to bring her father, a retired farmworker, to the dedication.

"My dad still talks about the day he held a UFW flag up while marching in Cesar's funeral procession," she said. "The memory I'll pass down to the next generation is this: I was there when the president of the United States came to La Paz and declared it a national monument."

It's a different world than Chavez's heyday, with Latinos — including those of Mexican descent — becoming increasingly urban denizens who will never stoop to pick a crop. Still, Chavez's legacy resonates broadly, if unevenly.

Ruben Navarrette, a CNN contributor, said with polls showing that more than 5% of Latino voters remained undecided, the president's trip was as practical as it was symbolic.

"I don't think he's doing this just because it's the right thing to do. It's crunch time for the campaign," he said. "This is clearly a pitch for any lingering Latino votes Obama hasn't gotten."

Said Terry Carreto, 52, a high school counselor from Boyle Heights: "I think people will appreciate this because not too many Latinos get recognized, especially by the president of the United States."

By the time Chavez died in 1993, the labor leader and his union had been written off by detractors who called them irrelevant in contemporary labor, cultural and political issues. But last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar added the La Paz retreat, which served as headquarters of the UFW and Chavez's residence from 1971 to his death, to the National Register of Historic Places.

In May, the Navy christened the newest cargo-ammunition ship for Chavez, who served in the Navy during World War II.

In the runup to election day, Obama has emphasized his support for the Dream Act, which would allow some young illegal immigrants to remain in the country legally, and signed an order blocking the deportation of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants.

But that issue provides a stark reminder that Chavez does not always fit neatly into the narrative of Latino civil rights. Chavez once led a march to the Mexican border to protest the incursion of illegal immigrants, who he felt depressed the wages and the prospects of unionized farm workers.

The new Chavez monument will embrace a 3-acre portion of La Paz that was donated by the family and includes Chavez's grave site, his carefully preserved office and a small, white wood-frame house where his widow, Helen, still lives.

Obama will designate the monument by invoking the Antiquities Act, avoiding the need to wait for a final determination by Congress.

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-- Hector Becerra and Louis Sahagun in Keene

Photo: Paul Chavez, son of the late labor leader Cesar Chavez, at his father's grave in Keene, Calif. The site where Chavez lived, worked and is buried will be dedicated as a national monument Monday. Photo: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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