President Barack Obama on Monday dedicated the nation's newest addition to the national park system, a 187-acre Kern County site where labor leader César Chávez lived his final 22 years and where he is buried.
A crowd estimated at 7,000 came from across California as well as other parts of the nation to witness Obama's first visit to the San Joaquin Valley on a day he called "a long time coming."
Although Chávez's home is in the Tehachapi foothills, Air Force One landed in nearby Bakersfield, and much of the farm labor rights movement has its roots in the valley.
"To the members of the Chávez family and those who knew and loved César; to the men and women who've worked so hard for so long to preserve this place, I want to say to all of you, thank you," Obama said.
Farmworkers were bused in from as far away as Imperial Valley to the south and Santa Rosa to the north. Children from Kern County schools were bused in. Thousands more from Los Angeles, the desert and the valley made the trek to La Paz, Chávez's home in this hamlet.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Chávez's son Paul and United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez spoke before Obama, with Rodriguez introducing the president to eager applause.
Obama wasted no time in using the UFW's rallying cry. "Buenos dias," he said. "Si, se puede."
The president told of farmworkers and the union that rose up to fight for things such as fair pay and no pesticides sprayed while workers were in the fields.
Obama then said, "The truth is, we would not be here if it weren't for César."
He talked of Chávez's efforts on behalf of not only farmworker rights, but basic human rights for all.
"Our world is a better place because César Chávez decided to change it," he said. Obama turned to Chávez's widow, Helen.
"To Helen, this will always be home. It's where she fought alongside the man she loved," he said.
"He found the place where he could plan and strategize," Chávez's son Paul, who heads the César Chávez Foundation, said of his father. "But it was more than that for my father. La Paz became a spiritual harbor for him."
The site in the hills east of Bakersfield is known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz (Our Lady Queen of Peace), or simply La Paz. It served as the planning and coordination center of the United Farm Workers of America starting in 1971. It's where Chávez and many organizers lived, trained and strategized.
Earlier, Obama visited the grave of César Chávez at La Paz. He placed a red rose, a variety named after the labor leader, on Chávez's resting place.
The Bakersfield Californian reported that organizers overbooked the event. Over the weekend, they began retracting invitations to 2,000 to 4,000 people, some as late as 10 p.m. Sunday. Facebook pages filled with comments from unhappy people whose dream to see the president would be thwarted.