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Grassroots Design at the National Chavez Center

By Dennis Dahlin, ASLA, Photos by Erik Skindrud, regional editor

The center's Garden of the Southwest includes a native oak (rear) and a staked flowering pear. Former farm worker Steve Ventura of San Pedro, Calif. and granddaughter Samantha Annette, 11, relax here while putting in volunteer hours at the site.

The National Chavez Center campus near Tehachapi, Calif. is an education center and memorial associated with the life and work of farm worker labor organizer Cesar E. Chavez. The 100-acre site includes a visitor center, memorial garden and the home of Cesar Chavez during the last two decades of his life.

Administrative offices and staff residences also are on the property, as well as a picnic area and playground. Work is proceeding on the Cesar E. Chavez Learning Institute, which will feature a conference center, museum and library.

The main fountain and resting place of Cesar E. Chavez (left) at the National Chavez Center. The centerpiece fountain and sculpture is made of adoquin stone quarried near Guadalajara, Mexico. The five weirs, or spillways, memorialize the loss of five lives during strikes and marches.

At an elevation of 2,600 feet, the campus has dramatic views of the surrounding mountains. Hiking trails wind through blue oak woodland and along tree-lined streams.

The property was a former tuberculosis sanitarium, acquired by the farm worker movement in the 1970s as an administrative center. From this location, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and others provided leadership in advancing the cause of farm workers through the efforts of the United Farm Workers labor union. Since the death of Chavez in 1993, the primary purpose of the property has shifted from administrative use to a visitor-oriented education center.

Cesar Chavez's grandson Andres Chavez, 11, swings at right on the center's play structure. Hopping from the slide at left is his friend Viridiana Zarate, 8.

The Cesar E. Chavez Foundation selected Dennis Dahlin, ASLA, as landscape architect and project coordinator to prepare a master plan and to design a memorial that incorporated Cesar's environmental, social, and spiritual values. The landscape architect was responsible for coordinating the team of design professionals and specialists in renovation and development.

Design Process

The multi-year design process began with preparation of a master plan for the campus, including plans for land use, circulation, infrastructure, conservation, and open space management. Design guidelines established themes for new development consistent with the rustic rural setting and cultural heritage of the farm worker movement. In addition, a master signage plan identified standards for regulatory signs, wayfinding and interpretive information.

Relatives of Cesar Chavez were actively involved in campus master planning and memorial design. Cesar's widow Helen, his brother Richard, and several of the Chavez children provided guidance in designing a memorial that would express the values of his life and inspiration for the future. The family directed the landscape architect to blend ecological sensitivity, cultural heritage, and art in the memorial design.

The yellow blooms of bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) bloom 10 months of the year or more. The spidery plant at left here is ocotillo. The orange color at rear are California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).

The campus and the memorial was designed to be a place of special meaning for Latinos. At the same time, Cesar Chavez was associated with universal values of human rights and dignity, and it was important for the design to make visitors from all ethnic backgrounds feel welcome.

Finances also were a challenge. With limited funds available, primarily through a grant from the State of California, the Chavez Foundation explored opportunities to secure volunteer labor. In addition to monetary benefits, the reliance on volunteers has introduced more people to the project, giving them a sense of ownership.

This unusual and rare purple prickly pear is native to the area around Yuma, Ariz. The center's Garden of the Southwest prides itself on unique species from throughout the region.

Two user groups have special importance in the planning process. Inner city children are particularly important visitors, with the campus providing a place to enjoy nature and learn about the life of Cesar Chavez. Farm workers and their families also comprise an important segment of the visitor population, making pilgrimages to pay their respects.

Memorial Garden

Design of the memorial garden was the first step in campus development. Centered on the final resting place of Cesar Chavez, the memorial garden honors Chavez's spiritual, cultural, and agricultural heritage. The garden incorporates traditional elements found in California missions, with perimeter walls enclosing a place of reflection and contemplation.

Cultural traditions are honored in a rose garden and stone sculpture, while an interpretive garden features native plants of the region and their traditional significance. The design demonstrates the "real world" tradeoffs where environmental concerns are balanced with cultural, historic, artistic, and economic constraints.

Cesar Chavez was an avid conservationist and organic gardener. The massive arbor at the entrance to the memorial garden is constructed of recycled redwood beams, reflecting his commitment to conservation of resources. Use of salvaged granite slabs, fieldstone from the property, decomposed granite obtained on site, and regional native plants also have reduced resource use and expressed the labor leader's rough-hewn simplicity.

From left are landscape architect Dennis Dahlin, 11-year-old Andres Chavez and Paul Chavez, son of the labor leader and chairman of the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation. The grass behind the trio (Chavez's grave is at left) is the only turf at the xeriscape-friendly center.

Dating back to the early 1900s, the adjacent visitor center building once served as the headquarters of the farm worker movement. The office and library of Cesar Chavez have been preserved, and the renovated structure now offers interpretive exhibits and presentations, a theater and a gift shop.

Fountains and Landscape Enhancements of Bakersfield, Calif. served as subcontractor for fountain and ornamental stonework. Volcanic adoquin stone quarried near Guadalajara, Mexico, was used extensively for sculpture, fountains, and pavement. The stylized stone eagle design embedded in the memorial garden pavement is based on the United Farm Workers flag designed by Cesar's brother Richard. With a wingspan of thirty feet, the eagle design denotes the global influence of Cesar Chavez as an advocate for the poor.

Located at the crossroads of the campus, the paseo fountain is a popular gathering place with vistas of the surrounding mountains. Within the garden, a wall fountain evokes the agricultural landscape where Cesar Chavez gave hope to farm workers. Five cascades honor the martyrs who lost their lives during the tumultuous years of labor strikes.

Heidi Wezlik, 23, talks to media (here at right) while volunteering at the center on Chavez's birthday, this March 31, 2005. "I've seen the street named for him in Los Angeles," she said. "But I had no idea how significant he was." Volunteers are helping to enhance the native plant garden.

The sculpture above the wall fountain depicts a farm worker movement march for better working conditions, including people of various nationalities and walks of life.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is honored with a statue at the southeast corner of the garden. A banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe was carried at the front of many farm worker marches.

The garden has special magic at night, with fountain reflections rippling across the perimeter walls. Vista light fixtures with a Camino Real theme were used along the pathways to carry out the Early California motif. Old World Traditions of San Diego, California, supplied custom wall-mounted lanterns. Along the entrance drive, Ryther-Purdy cedar light standards enhance the rustic setting.

Vivid orange California poppies lend native color along the center's main entry path. A fountain constructed of Mexican adoquin stone is at rear right. The arbor at center is made with redwood beams and helps enclose the center's memorial garden.

Plant Materials

Symbolism, climate adaptation, seasonal interest and resource conservation all were important in the selection of plant materials. Existing trees on the site primarily include blue oak (Quercus douglasii) and foothill pine (Pinus sabiniana), with an understory of introduced grasses and forbs. Willows, sycamores, and cottonwoods line the creek corridors.

With limited availability of water, designing for conservation was particularly important. In keeping with Mediterranean garden traditions, plants requiring regular irrigation have been concentrated in a focused area. Turf has been strictly limited to a small lawn at the grave site, comprising less than one percent of the landscaped area. Native and drought tolerant plants have been emphasized.

Valley Crest served as landscape contractor for the project. Sally Nishimoto served as project manager, and Martin Ortega, Pablo Ruiz, Sal Navarette, and Mark Jones all played important roles as part of the Valley Crest construction team.

The Memorial Garden includes a number of rose varieties selected in honor of the labor leader. For relaxation, Chavez often tended roses. He particularly valued the old roses found in early California mission gardens, for their tough and hardy qualities.

The West San Gabriel Valley Boys & Girls Club donated the center's two-slide play structure in 2003. The redwood and plastic structures are manufactured by Backyard Adventures of Amarillo, Texas.

The 'Cesar Chavez' rose occupies the two planters flanking the final resting place of this labor leader. Jackson & Perkins named this hybrid tea variety in honor of the champion of farm worker rights, the first Latino figure so honored.

Named for the inspirational saint, 'Our Lady of Guadalupe ' is a Jackson & Perkins New Generation rose located along the east wall of the Memorial Garden. A portion of net sales helps to fund scholarships for high school graduates through the Hispanic College Fund.

'Climbing Peace' roses adorn the south wall of the Memorial Garden, commemorating the commitment of Cesar Chavez to the cause of peace and non-violence.

'Habitat for Humanity' roses in the garden symbolize the need for decent shelter for farm workers. A portion of the net sales of this Jackson & Perkins variety has been donated to help build homes for families in need.

Many of the varieties used in the garden were donated by Jackson & Perkins, a union rose grower. Most plants came from their Bear Creek Nursery growing grounds near Wasco, Calif.

Other plants have special significance at the Memorial Garden. Strawberries at the western corners of the garden commemorate the farm workers who provide food for our society. 'Thompson Seedless' grape vines recall the innovative national boycott of table grapes led by Chavez, calling attention to the unjust conditions of workers in the fields.

Treasures left from the center's early days include these California-native washingtonia palms, which are thicker and squatter than their Mexican cousins. Also note the mid-20th-century light pole and fixture to the right.

Garden of the Southwest

Located a short distance from the memorial garden, the "Garden of the Southwest" displays native plants used by indigenous peoples in the region.

A desert plant collection includes cactus and other species associated with the life of Cesar Chavez. Regional native wildflowers and shrubs add seasonal color. Natives have been seeded or planted from small container sizes to aid in early adaptation to the site.

Native to the vicinity of the Chavez birthplace, the purple prickly pear (Opuntia 'Santa Rita') has special interest.

The cheerful and whimsical bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) blooms nearly continuously, and red yucca (Hesperaloe parvifolia) adds visual drama.

The native plant garden was intended as an experimental area for trying seldom-used natives. Several selections have failed, and manzanitas in general have not done well. However, hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) has been a star performer as a perimeter screen around the Memorial Garden, rapidly filling out in spite of its reputation as a slow grower. Several ceanothus varieties including 'Concha' and 'Sierra Blue' have thrived, as well as toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).

Many students, farm workers, and other volunteers have helped to make the Memorial Garden a reality. Helen Chavez and other family members picked up trowels and helped with container planting work during the final days before the garden dedication.

A $2.5 million grant will help convert this Mission-style, former tuberculosis sanatorium into the Cesar E. Chavez Learning Institute. The facility will include a museum, library, and exhibits about the farm worker movement.


The West San Gabriel Valley Boys and Girls Club has made a special contribution to the campus. As part of their Peacemakers of the World program, the club secured a grant from the State of California's Go Serve program for renovation of the playground at the center.

In 2003, children from ten to fifteen years old constructed the playground with adult supervision. Students in the club periodically return to the playground to help with cleaning and maintenance.

Role of the Landscape Architect

The involvement of the landscape architect on this project demonstrates opportunities for professional involvement beyond the traditional design roles of campus master planning and design. He helped direct the Urban Corps and other groups in contributing volunteer work. The landscape architect also played a supporting role in securing the second phase grant, providing the Chavez Foundation with graphics, assistance with environmental clearance, and other application materials.

A close-up view of the adoquin stone sculpture that portrays farm worker marches with key participants in the movement, including Chavez's dog, seen here near the head of the march.

Future Plans For The National Chavez Center

The Cesar E. Chavez Foundation has received a $2.5 million grant for renovation of an historic building on the property. Work is now underway on the Cesar E. Chavez Learning Institute, which will include a museum, library, and exhibits about the farm worker movement. For future campus development, the master plan calls for continued use of recycled and natural materials, recycling and composting, solar heating, and resource-conscious landscaping. Restoration of a former huerta (vegetable garden and orchard) also is part of a comprehensive sustainable program for the property.

Visitors are welcome at the National Chavez Center, located between Bakersfield and Tehachapi on State Route 58. Directions and more information about the Center are available at or by calling 661-823-6230. A virtual tour of the Center is available at the landscape architect's web site,

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December 7, 2019, 3:50 am PDT

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