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Cynics Hit Obama on Timing of Cesar Chavez Monument--But Obama's Been Celebrating Chavez For Years

10/11/2012 06:34 pm ET | Updated Dec 11, 2012

Monday, at a ceremony marking the event in Keene, CA, President Obama dedicated a monument to Cesar Chavez. The land on which the monument sits is land where Chavez resided and from where he led the farm worker labor movement with which he is synonymous.

The straight news article from CNN was quick to point out:

"It's no coincidence the move comes less than a month before Election Day, as the president maintains a strong lead among Latinos. A big turnout among Latino supporters in states where the race is close could help Obama win re-election against GOP challenger Mitt Romney."

CNN contributor Ruben Navarette Jr. chimed in:

Obama's visit is all about politics. The Chavez dedication is some campaign aide's bright idea of how to turn out Latino voters -- 70% of whom support Obama over Mitt Romney -- on Election Day.

That kind of speculation is to be expected. And of course, this is an election season, so I'm sure that that played a role in the timing of this event. But, because my research led me to read just about everything Barack Obama has published or said publicly for two decades, I can tell you that he has been talking about the importance of Cesar Chavez for years, and not just when the issues of labor or Mexican-Americans came up. He has consistently placed Chavez in the pantheon of great Americans of every ethnicity.

In The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama wrote that our Constitution (pp. 362-63):

Despite being marred by the original sin of slavery--has at its very core the idea of equal citizenship under the law. . . . Of course racism and nativist sentiments have repeatedly undermined these ideals . . . but in the hands of reformers, from Tubman to Douglass to Chavez to King, these ideals of equality have gradually shaped how we understand ourselves and allowed us to form a multicultural nation the likes of which exists nowhere else on earth.

At Arizona State University's commencement on May 13, 2009, Obama again placed Chavez into the broader narrative of American history of which he has so often spoken:

That's the spirit that led a band of patriots not much older than most of you to take on an empire, to start this experiment in democracy we call America. It's what drove young pioneers west, to Arizona and beyond; it's what drove young women to reach for the ballot; what inspired a 30 year-old escaped slave to run an underground railroad to freedom -- (applause) -- what inspired a young man named Cesar to go out and help farm workers; what inspired a 26 year-old preacher to lead a bus boycott for justice. It's what led firefighters and police officers in the prime of their lives up the stairs of those burning towers; and young people across this country to drop what they were doing and come to the aid of a flooded New Orleans. It's what led two guys in a garage -- named Hewlett and Packard -- to form a company that would change the way we live and work; what led scientists in laboratories, and novelists in coffee shops to labor in obscurity until they finally succeeded in changing the way we see the world.

Obama's 2010 book Of Thee I Sing is built around a similarly inclusive yet unifying narrative of our history, in which he detailed the accomplishments of thirteen great Americans: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia O'Keeffe, Albert Einstein, Jackie Robinson, Sitting Bull, Billie Holiday, Helen Keller, Maya Lin, Jane Addams, Neil Armstrong, and Cesar Chavez. Obama devoted a full page, including text and an original illustration, to each of these Americans.

The President wrote on p. 23:

A man named Cesar Chavez showed farmworkers their own power when they felt they had none. The people were poor but worked hard and loved the land. Cesar picketed, prayed, and talked. The people listened to their hearts and marched for their rights. "¡Si, se puede!" Cesar said. "Yes, you can!"

We know that Obama, just like Mitt Romney, is running for President. That's all well and good. But it's not as if today is the first time Barack Obama has uttered the name Cesar Chavez. Through numerous speeches as well as a quite personal book he wrote to and for his daughters, Obama made clear that he has long considered Cesar Chavez to be among the greatest of all Americans. That's a point worth remembering.