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A replica of a César E. Chávez statue is journeying from the Valley to a White House museum

A portrait of Cesar Chavez sitting beside a crate of handpicked grapes
Laura S. Diaz
The Fresno Bee
An artistic portrait of Cesar Chavez was showcased at an uninterrupted vigil on Aug. 30, 2022, along with handpicked grapes by farmworkers. United Farm Worker supporters camped outside California State Government offices in Fresno to pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill that could grant farmworkers the flexibility to vote by mail in union elections.

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FRESNO, Calif. – Come September, a bronze statue of civil rights leader César E. Chávez will be featured in a new museum in the White House called the “People’s House.”

The renowned Latino civil rights and farm labor leader co-founded the nation’s first successful farmworker union in Delano in 1962 and raised awareness for the struggles of immigrants and farm laborers across the states. Chavez died on Apr. 23, 1993.

Chávez’s legacy has been commemorated at the national scale, but the journey to make it into the White House started in the Central Valley. In 1996, Hanford artist Paul Suarez was commissioned by Fresno State to create the first ever life-size statue of Chávez.

The monument was sculpted with bronze integrated atop a granite base adorned with images of farmworkers. It depicts Chávez “handing off the baton” to onlookers.

The memorial was placed in the university’s Peace Garden, an area of the campus that pays tribute to various leaders in activism, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and most recently Nelson Mandela. The unveiling of the statute in 1996 garnered national attention as the first-of-its-kind in the nation.

Suarez later became flooded with requests from across the county for similar monuments. From the molds, he was able to create 25 bronze busts of the monuments on granite pedestals, and offered them to collectors. Many of the busts were sold to attorneys, city offices, schools and libraries.

Nearly two decades later, one landed in the White House.

In 2021, the Cesar Chavez Foundation sent a bust of the leader to the White House for display
The César Chávez Foundation
In 2021, the Cesar Chavez Foundation sent a bust of the leader to the White House for display

At the start of his term, President Joe Biden placed a bust on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office – where it still sits today, surrounded with portraits of the Biden family.

“[Chávez’s] legacy as the founder, along with Dolores Huerta, of the United Farm Workers of America, reminds us of the central place that organizing and collective bargaining holds in advancing the dignity and wellbeing of working Americans,” Biden wrote in a proclamation on César Chávez Day in 2021.

“I keep that lesson in my heart every day — and I was proud to place a bust of César Chávez in the Oval Office, so that no one who enters that historic room may forget the powerful truths his farm worker hands imparted,” the president said.

Biden has been a strong supporter of Chávez, as well as the United Farm Workers. Julie Chávez Rodríguez, Chavez’s granddaughter, is also Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign manager.

The César Chávez Foundation requested more duplicates from the original artist, including one for the newest White House museum. According to a press release, museum curators wished to design an exact replica of the Oval Office, and commissioned a nearly identical bust.

But first, Suarez needed to restore the original molds. He borrowed an original bust from an owner in Bakersfield, and took it to the East Coast to take high-tech scans, 3-D printing in resin and bronze casting to create new molds.

Suarez is currently finalizing the bust in Georgia, and is gearing up to unveil the monument at the opening of the exhibit in the fall.

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.