U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and relatives of Cesar Chavez joined veteran activists, politicians and celebrities at a plaque dedication ceremony Monday at Forty Acres, which was recently named a National Historic Landmark.
The plot of land at Garces Highway West and Mettler Road just outside Delano was the movement's headquarters from 1968 to 1971, when it moved to La Paz in Keene.
Forty Acres is where Chavez and others planned and carried out some of the most important initiatives of the farm worker movement. Chavez fasted there twice, once in 1968 to rededicate the movement to nonviolence; and again in 1988 over the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their children.
U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy met Chavez there before the activist ended his first fast, and United Farm Workers signed its first historic labor contract at the site in 1970.
Cesar Chavez's brother, Richard Chavez, joked that he and another activist were nervous when, in 1967, they conspired to buy the 40-acre desert plot for $2,700 even though Cesar had nixed the idea.
"I said, 'He's nonviolent and all that, but he's going to kill us,' " Richard Chavez quipped.
Cesar Chavez came around to the idea after the deed was done, and Richard Chavez would spend the next six to eight months of Sundays--his only day off--clearing and leveling the land for buildings.
All of the adobe brick structures at Forty Acres were built by volunteers. The first building erected was a cooperative service station named for a grape striker. The group would later build an administration building, a medical clinic and a retirement village for elderly and displaced Filipino American farm workers. They had ben recruited as young single men, but anti-miscegenation laws forbid them to marry outside their race and there were no Filipino women, so most didn't have families or a place to live after they were evicted from farm labor camps.
A plaque embedded in a small brick wall was unveiled for the media before dignitaries went over to a stage set up for speeches (in English and Spanish) and performances by mariachi bands and folklorico dancers.
Salazar said it was fitting to spend Presidents' Day marking Forty Acres as a National Historic Landmark.
It was just a couple of months ago, he said, that President Obama had told him that as a young man, he'd been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.
"Cesar Chavez taught Barack Obama to be a dreamer," he said, and look where that dream had led him.
Salazar urged roughly 800 supporters seated on white folding chairs to continue to pursue the "unfinished business" of the movement, including passing comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act, legislation that would create a path to citizenship for people illegally brought to the United States as children who have enrolled in college or joined the military.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, also pledged support for immigration reform and the Dream Act, as well as policies to create more agricultural jobs.
United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez said, "Giants walked, and still walk, these 40 acres: names like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Walter Reuther, Robert Kennedy and Cardinal Roger Mahony, plus countless other giants whose names few recall."
Young people should learn the history of the place, Rodriguez said, so that they can realize the potential to be giants, too.
Veteran activist Huerta urged workers to keep on organizing, and said the modern labor movement continues to be under siege. "We see what's happening in Wisconsin," she said, referring to a proposal that would eliminate collective bargaining for Wisconsin state employees.
Huerta also criticized several proposals in the Tennessee state legislature that have been widely criticized as anti-immigrant.
She noted that many activists who had worked on the grape strike and boycott had passed on, but a few were in the audience and should stand and be recognized. They did, to thunderous applause.
One of the people who rose was Lupe Rodriguez, 74, draped in red, the official color of the United Farm Workers.
In younger days, she volunteered at the movement's medical clinic, helping sick and injured farm workers who had no health insurance.
Rodriguez said Cesar Chavez and the work he did deserves a place in history.
"I had six kids, and Cesar, he tell me, 'You keep them in school. You make sure they go to college,' " she said, then stood up a little taller and beamed. "All six of them graduated from college. Every one."
Marisa Pulido attended the ceremony with her brother. They said it was an honor to be there because in the 1980s, they were student activists from UCLA who visited Cesar Chavez toward the weak, sickly end of his second fast.
"This is hallowed ground," Pulido said.