It is with great joy that we can now inform you that the Secretary of Interior has named McDonnell Hall a National Historical Landmark today.
As you may remember, Amigos oversaw the grant to have McDonnell Hall so designated. As a lifelong community member, it is hard to put into words…Amigos is proud of the role we played to make this a reality.
SAN JOSE – The modest wooden meeting house on San Antonio Street, its stucco patched and foundation crumbling, looks like an unlikely selection for one of the two dozen prestigious federal landmark designations the National Park Service announced on Wednesday.
But the people who built what became McDonnell Hall in 1953 cherished it as a chapel for the farmworkers who toiled in the muddy fields of an East San Jose barrio, a place known as Sal Si Puedes — “get out if you can.”
Sal Si Puedes was home to Cesar Chavez, and that chapel was where the famed labor leader first learned to organize with members of the Community Services Organization in the 1950s and 1960s. Later, Chavez organized the United Farm Workers union and mounted a grape boycott that propelled him to the fore of civil rights leaders.
“Sal Si Puedes — they turned that phrase around,” said the Rev. Jon Pedigo, director of projects for peace and justice with the Diocese of San Jose. “They didn’t have to leave there to be strong. It became ‘si se puede’ — yes we can. They were not going to go anywhere. They were going to take what they had and make it better.”
Pedigo, who was a pastor at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish that includes the meeting hall for four years before leaving in July, said the late Deacon Salvador Alvarez led the charge to gain status for the site as a National Historic Landmark. The designation makes it eligible for bonds to make it into an interpretive center — although whether or not that will happen is still uncertain.
But “we have so much support from people who want to set something up,” said Serena Alvarez, the late deacon’s daughter. She said that support comes from San Jose and Santa Clara County leaders as well as state and national representatives.
“I’m so proud of the communal effort that has led to such a great recognition for this simple chapel where one of our greatest civil rights champions began a movement that changed lives throughout our nation,” said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose.
Santa Clara County Board President Dave Cortese said in a statement that the designation “is a testimony to the important civil rights work that started here in the 1950s and continues today.”
Alvarez said the landmark designation also set a precedent — out of all the nationally designated sites, she said a scant 3 percent represented a diverse population. Pedigo said that’s because landmark status is usually about keeping the integrity of an original structure, or maintaining its use over the years.
For a former church that lost its bell tower and stained glass windows and was hauled across the neighborhood to a new site in the late 1960s, that sort of criteria doesn’t bode well.
“Communities of affluence are able to preserve their historic buildings like that,” Alvarez said. “But the community here had no means to do so. And the building was adapted to their needs.”
Pedigo said it took a lot of trips to Washington and a lot of conversations to get people to agree that there are other yardsticks of a structure’s significance. And that, said Alvarez, is “unequivocally a precedent.”
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said the new landmarks “depict different threads of the American story that have been told through activism, architecture, music and religious observance.”
“Their designation ensures future generations have the ability to learn from the past as we preserve and protect the historical value of these properties and the more than 2,500 other landmarks nationwide.”
Another such designation announced Wednesday was for Chicano Park in San Diego, a site that community residents occupied to prevent construction of a police station on land that had been set aside for a park.
Alvarez said the hope is that despite an administration change, the National Park Service will continue to recognize such sites of importance. Pedigo said he was thrilled to see the announcement in the last days of the Obama administration.
“This was one of those deadline things. It would not happen in two weeks,” he said. “And now, especially, we need this. It’s a real sacramental sign of the resistance. We need these signs, especially for people of color, for Latinos, for immigrant workers. We need these signs of victory.”
Staff writer Tatiana Sanchez contributed to this story. Written in the Mercury News by Eric Kurhi. 1.22.17. Photos also from the article.