Sunday, March 1, 2015

National Chavez Center in Keene, Calif., adds retreat, conference center


Paul Chavez poses in front of new conference center.

A dilapidated collection of buildings that once housed Kern County’s sick and fragile children has been transformed into a gracious retreat and conference center that likely would have warmed the heart of the late farm worker advocate Cesar Chavez.

Once known as the Preventorium, a county hospital and residential facility in Keene for under-weight children and children who had contracted tuberculosis, the horseshoe-shaped complex has been restored to its 1929 grandeur.

Nestled at the foot of Three Peaks, a rock outcropping on the northern border of the 187-acre National Chavez Center on Woodford-Tehachapi Road, the retreat and conference center is intended to advance Chavez’s legacy of peaceful advocacy for civil rights and the empowerment of disenfranchised people.

“Dad believed ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” said Paul Chavez, president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation. But to do extraordinary things, Chavez recognized that people need to be trained and inspired.

Assuming a life of self-imposed poverty, Chavez created a labor union, the United Farm Workers, and a social movement, now continued by the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation. The non-profit foundation operates the National Chavez Center in Keene, where Chavez, who died in 1993, is buried. It also oversees a national affordable housing program and a Spanish-language radio network.

“Here is a man who never made more than $6,000 a year. He died at 66 and left no money. But 40,000 people marched behind his casket,” recalled Marc Grossman, Chavez’s long-time spokesman and assistant.

“For 100 years before Cesar, people tried and failed to organize farm workers,” said Grossman, explaining Chavez succeeded by adopting new techniques and strategies, including boycotts and non-violence. Chavez created more than a union. He created a social movement “that has taken on a life of its own.”

In the 1960s, Chavez’s movement was headquartered in Delano, in the crossfire between powerful growers and union organizers. Searching for a more secure location for his family, union officials and volunteers, Chavez learned that Kern County was selling its shuttered tuberculosis sanitarium in Keene. He also suspected pro-agriculture county officials would not sell the property to him.

So instead, movie producer Edward Lewis, a wealthy union supporter, bought the property in 1971. He quickly turned it over to the non-profit National Farm Workers Service Center, which is now merged with the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation.

The compound, which was named Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz, or more commonly La Paz, became Chavez’s refuge, as well as the hub of union organizing and training for more than two decades.

And that is what Chavez was doing – organizing farm workers in Arizona – when he died in his sleep in 1993.

“Mom came to us and said Dad always wanted to be buried at La Paz,” recalled Paul Chavez. “That meant we would never leave. That weighed on us. The buildings were old and dilapidated.”

The future of La Paz, as well as the movement Chavez created, became the focus of intense evaluation by members of Chavez’s extended family and supporters. The result was the creation of a master plan for La Paz, which included the creation of the retreat and conference center that will open this month.

Paul Chavez recalled that his father’s goal was to provide a place for individuals and groups to gather to work for social justice and civil rights, to learn the skills to organize and do “extraordinary things.” He said creation of a retreat and conference center furthers his father’s goal.

Funding for the retreat and conference center was partially provided by a $2.5 million grant from the California Cultural and Heritage Endowment of the California State Library. Project coordinator Dennis Dahlin estimates the total cost of renovating the former county hospital was $6 million, with matching funds contributed by the foundation and supporters. Professional services and supplies also were donated.

A similar state grant and contributions helped pay for the construction in 204 of a visitors’ center at the entrance to the National Chavez Center. The visitors’ center features Chavez’s office, library and courtyard, as well as the memorial garden, where Chavez is buried.

Chavez’s birthday, March 31, is recognized as an official holiday in 11 states, including California, with observations focused on community service. Educational and social service groups visit and tour the National Chavez Center in Keene year round.

A third phase of the National Chavez Center’s master plan calls for the creation of a cultural center, said Paul Chavez.

Training sessions and programs sponsored by the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation will be held in the new retreat and conference center. In addition, use of the center by groups and individuals for conference and social events, including weddings, can be arranged by calling Manager Monica Parra at 661-823-6271.

The retreat and conference center will officially open on Saturday, June 26, during a celebration from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the National Chavez Center, 29700 Woodford-Tehachapi Road, Keene, Calif.

This article appeared first in the June edition of The Bakersfield Californian’s MAS magazine and on Dianne Hardisty's blog. A condensed story was posted on June 6, 2010 on Dianne Hardisty’s Examiner page.

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