Men, women and children once lived in despair in a tuberculous sanitarium Kern County built in 1929 in a mountain clearing in Keene, west of Tehachapi. The same sanitarium, in the 1970s, was transformed into a center of hope for the nation’s struggling farm workers. Today, it stands as an inspiration for Americans.
Nestled at the foot of Three Peaks, a rock outcropping on the northern border of 116 acres along Woodford-Tehachapi Road, northeast of Highway 58, the former sanitarium is now the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument — managed collaboratively by the National Park Service and the National Chavez Center.
The complex, where union icon Cesar Chavez is buried, was established as a national monument in 2012 by President Barack Obama. The property, which is known as Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz (La Paz) also is designated a National Historic Landmark.
With his farm workers union headquarters located in Delano in the 1960s, Chavez wanted to move his family, union officials and volunteers out of the increasing volatile crossfire of his organization’s struggle with powerful growers.
His search for a more secure location led him to Keene and the then-shuttered sanitarium. With county officials unlikely to agree to sell the property to Chavez, movie producer Edward Lewis, a wealthy union supporter, bought the complex in 1971 and quickly turned it over to the nonprofit National Farm Workers Service Center, which has since merged with the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation.
The compound became Chavez’s refuge, as well as the hub of union organizing and training for decades. Chavez, who died in his sleep in 1993 while in Arizona organizing farm workers, was brought back to La Paz for burial.
The future of La Paz, as well as the movement Chavez created, became the focus of intense discussion 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 a retreat and conference center that opened in 2010.
In an interview preceding the center’s grand opening, 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.”
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 Library. An earlier state grant and contributions helped pay for the 2004 construction of a visitors’ center at the entrance to what is now the Cesar E. Chavez National Memorial. The visitors’ center features Chavez’s office, library and courtyard, as well as the memorial gardens, where Chavez is buried.