The Colorado River is important to many Latinos in the Southwest, says Paul Chavez. (Courtesy Kevin Hinson)

Opinion: Cesar Chavez’s son on why the Colorado River must be saved

President Obama joined 7,000 people on Oct. 8 in dedicating the Cesar Chavez National Monument at La Paz, the 187-acre facility in the small Tehachapi Mountain town Keene, California, where my father, Cesar Chavez, spent the last 22 years of his life. From there he directed the movement for the civil and labor rights of farm workers and watched generations of families, our family and many others, grow up.

Thanks to the leadership of President Obama and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, La Paz will be preserved for future generations and the story of my father and thousands of Latinos, immigrants and others who joined La Causa will be shared with all of America through the National Park Service.

RELATED: Obama: “Today We Celebrate Cesar Chavez”

While La Paz is important to Cesar Chavez’s legacy, my family’s heritage is also deeply rooted in the North Gila River Valley outside Yuma, Arizona, a small agricultural valley surrounding the Gila River at its confluence with the Colorado River. That’s where my father was born, near the family farm homesteaded in 1900 by his grandfather, Cesario, for whom he was named.

My father and his family spent his first 11 years in this little valley between the rivers. His father, my grandfather Librado, farmed there, was the local postmaster, a “caller” (calling square dances) and ran the local country store.

It was the depths of the Depression. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing. But it was a wholesome life for a kid. There was the dignity of working your own land. Canal water from the Colorado River gave life to crops and hundreds of Chavezes who lived along it. My father and his siblings played in the canal and adjacent hills.

They learned about their family’s rich history on this land, listening to elders tell stories around bonfires on the patio behind their adobe-brick house: Chavezes cut and hauled wood in their mule-drawn wagons that built Arizona’s mines and railroads. An uncle witnessed the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone in 1881. Librardo Chavez drove a Wells Fargo stagecoach. The family literally built the Old West.

RELATED: Cesar Chavez, Hugo Chavez Twitter Confusion as Obama Dedicates National Monument

When they lost the homestead to the bank, my father and our family were forced into California’s industrialized agribusiness. Thus began my dad’s long journey into migrant farm work and, ultimately, his nonviolent battle for farm worker rights.

Most farm workers only knew a life of exploitation and humiliation. Most accepted it because that’s all they knew. But my father had known a different life in Arizona, a version of idyllic 19th Century American agriculture. That’s why he never accepted the grinding poverty and abuse. The seeds of hope and possibility were planted in my dad when he was a boy in the North Gila River Valley.

The Chavez family homestead, the country store and my father’s schoolhouse are still there. Many of the buildings are in disrepair and in danger of being lost. Historians and Latino leaders want to save these sites and preserve their history. The National Park Service has studied the locations. But the homestead isn’t the only treasure in peril.

The Colorado River, which stretches nearly 1,500 miles from the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of California in Mexico, is drying up. The river actually runs dry before reaching the ocean in Mexico.

Generations of Latinos have relied, and still rely, on the Colorado River and its tributaries for agriculture, drinking water and family recreation. So it’s not surprising that recent polls of Latino voters in key Southwest states show Latinos strongly support conservation and river protection. A recent poll reveals nearly 75 percent of Latino voters believe it is very important for government to do all it can and 80 percent favor conservation to address water shortages.

In a key move during November, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation releases the final report of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. The bureau collected and evaluated proposals to address the supply-demand imbalance that is draining the river dry, which will be shared when it releases the report. While the final report does not include any binding action, Secretary Salazar is expected to use the study’s findings to develop a plan to implement some proposed strategies.

Latinos will be watching and encouraging a focus on commonsense measures emphasizing water conservation so the Colorado River and its tributaries continue to flow. If we don’t save the Colorado, we stand to lose much more than a natural resource; we will lose a living link to our proud history as Latinos in this country. Cesar Chavez, along with many others along the Rio Colorado, was part of that link. To honor our heritage and preserve our future, we must act now.

RELATED: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar commended for saving the Colorado River

Paul F. Chavez is president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation and the middle son of Cesar Chavez.

%d bloggers like this: