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Hispanic leaders see political symbolism in first lady's visit to Delano

First lady Jill Biden plans to visit Delano Wednesday as part of a Democratic Party tradition local Hispanic leaders say pays appropriate tribute to the Central Valley's disenfranchised poor while underscoring the continuing relevance of labor unions in national politics.

Biden's Cesar Chavez Day stop at Forty Acres, birthplace of the United Farm Workers union, follows visits in recent years by a series of former presidents and presidential candidates anxious to show their support for the late civil rights icon and the work that continues under the union's banner.

"I think it's only fitting to come to Delano on the birthdate of Cesar Chavez and continue to build the relationship between folks such as UFW, Dolores Huerta Foundation, people who … give dignity to the lives of poor people," said Emilio Huerta, the foundation's general counsel and son of Dolores Huerta, a civil rights icon still active locally.

Forty Acres, where the White House says the first lady will participate in a "day of action," carries special significance to local organizations working to improve conditions for farmworkers and other Hispanics struggling with poverty and difficult living conditions.

Leydy Rangel, spokeswoman for the UFW Foundation, said Biden's presence at the site will speak to the alliance that exists between the Biden administration and local farmworker groups — and it might bode well for legislation pending before the U.S. Senate that would provide a path to citizenship for local ag laborers.

"The visit by the first lady is a symbol that we have a friend in the White House, especially during times when farmworkers have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic," she said. "It’s critical that we have allies in Washington, D.C. that are paying attention to what’s happening to our farmworker communities in these difficult times.”

Forty Acres is where, in March 1968 with then-Sen. Robert Kennedy at his side, Chavez ended a 25-day fast rededicating the UFW to nonviolence. The property along Garces Highway is also where more than two dozen grape growers came together in July 1970 to sign a contract that ended a three-year international grape boycott.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited the site in May 2016, and presidential candidate Julian Castro did so in 2019. Both met with UFW leaders as they worked to consolidate their political support among Hispanic voters.

Earlier, in 2012, President Barack Obama came to Kern to honor the origins of the UFW. But instead of visiting Forty Acres he went to La Paz, in Keene, to announce the establishment there of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument.

Four years later, former President Bill Clinton also paid tribute to the union, delivering a speech that closed Bakersfield's four-day UFW convention. He also stopped in Delano at the cafeteria at Cesar Chavez High School.

Kern County Democratic Party Chairman Christian Romo said Forty Acres has become "hallowed ground" to Hispanics: It's where the extremely poor and underrepresented finally found an effective voice.

Its importance continues, he said, most recently as the site of COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

"That’s where it all happened,” he said, adding that Biden's visit also recognizes labor unions remain the "backbone" of the Democratic Party.

Emilio Huerta said many Central Valley residents are still poor despite Chavez's success in shining a light on systemic racism. For that reason, there's value in having Biden acknowledge the struggle continues, he said.

He said he hopes Biden will share the event's message with her husband back in Washington.

"To have someone recognize that, sort of acknowledge our struggle, is a great thing and is a great thing for celebration,” he said.