Darryl Morin, national president of the advocacy group Forward Latino, jumped from his chair when he saw it on TV — a bust of the civil and labor rights leader Cesar Chavez just behind President Joe Biden as he signed executive orders.
"I literally jumped out of my chair and yelled: 'That's Cesar Chavez! Cesar Chavez!'" said Morin, whose group has taken on civil rights and anti-discrimination causes in behalf of Latinos.
The bust, created by Paul Suarez 25 years ago, quickly attracted attention on social media.
It rested on a console among family photos behind Biden as he sat at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and signed a slew of executive orders, several of them about racial equity and combating the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been brutal to the farmworkers whom Chavez championed. Biden is also sending to Congress an immigration bill that would give farmworkers temporary legal status if they pass criminal background checks and have worked in the agriculture field for four of the last five years.
"When I think of everything our community has been through these last four years, there can be no stronger message of empathy and on the importance of our community moving forward," Morin said.
The bust, which had been in California, at the Cesar Chavez National Monument, was sent to Washington at the request of the White House, according to the Cesar Chavez Foundation. The foundation said it had never before been in the Oval Office.
"Placing a bust of my father in the Oval Office symbolizes the hopeful new day that is dawning for our nation," Chavez's son Paul Chavez, president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, said in a statement. "That isn't just because it honors my dad, but more importantly because it represents faith and empowerment for an entire people on whose behalf he fought and sacrificed."
One of Biden's White House officials, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the director of the Office of Intergovernmental Relations, is Chavez's granddaughter.
"I'm very excited and honored that it's something he chose as a symbol in his office," she said. "It's an honor and a real tribute to the community."
The Latino community has been hit disproportionately by the pandemic, with higher rates of cases and deaths. A large share of people without legal status living in the country are Latino, including many farmworkers.
Dolores Huerta, a civil rights leader who organized workers with Chavez, hadn't seen video or photos of the bust when she was reached for comment Wednesday evening, but she had been told of its presence in the White House.
"I think it's exciting he did that. It's like a reverence to farmworkers, and to do that in front of the Cesar bust shows his sincerity he has, especially when it comes to workers," she said. "Biden's commitment to workers is very strong."