By Jeff Mason
KEENE, California (Reuters) - President Barack Obama dedicated the home of celebrated Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez as a national monument on Monday, a gesture that could help energize Latino voters a month before Election Day.
Detouring from a series of campaign rallies and fundraising events, Obama paid tribute to Chavez, a hero to many Hispanic Americans, while noting economic challenges that the community still faces.
"The recession we're still fighting our way back from is still taking a toll, especially in Latino communities, which already faced higher unemployment and poverty rates," Obama told a crowd gathered at the central California home where Chavez lived and led his farm workers movement.
Obama enjoys an overwhelming margin of support over Republican challenger Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters, and California's 55 electoral votes appear solidly in the Democratic president's column.
Even so, Latinos could help tip the balance in his favor in states that are up for grabs like Florida and Nevada, and campaign aides want to ensure robust turnout among the president's supporters for the November 6 election.
Immigration remains a priority issue for many Latino voters. The president said last month that his inability to overhaul U.S. immigration laws as promised was one of the biggest shortcomings of his first four years in office, and he again pledged to pursue legislation if he wins a second term.
While many conservatives advocate much stiffer laws against illegal immigrants, the president in June issued an order allowing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to avoid deportation.
Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union who died in 1993, is a revered figure for his organizing work on behalf of farm workers and Hispanic Americans - not only to many Latinos, but to political liberals more broadly.
He is buried on the 187-acre (75-hectare)property in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains where Chavez lived and where the union hosted meetings, conferences and training sessions. In bright sunshine, the president placed a red rose on the rough hewn headstone that marks Chavez's grave.
"Today we celebrate Cesar Chavez," Obama said at the dedication ceremony.
Obama made no direct mention of the coming election, in which he and Romney are locked in a close race.
But he stirred the highly partisan crowd with chants of "Si, se puede." The Spanish slogan popularized by Chavez translates to "Yes, we can," a catch-phrase Obama adopted for his victorious 2008 run for the White House.
(Writing by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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