César Chávez

From New World Encyclopedia

César Estrada Chávez (March 31,1927 – April 23, 1993) was an American farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers. His work led to numerous improvements for migrant workers. He is hailed as one of the greatest Mexican-American civil rights leaders. His birthday on March 31 has subsequently become a holiday in a few of U.S. states, and a number of parks, libraries, schools, and streets have been named in his honor in several cities across the United States.

In 1994, César Estrada Chávez was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United State’s highest honor for nonmilitary personnel. It was accepted by his wife, Helen F. Chávez. During the ceremony President Clinton said of Chávez:

“Born into Depression-era poverty in Arizona in 1927, he served in the United States Navy in the Second World War, and rose to become one of our greatest advocates of nonviolent change. He was for his own people a Moses figure. The farm workers who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency pinned their hopes on this remarkable man, who, with faith and discipline, with soft-spoken humility and amazing inner strength, led a very courageous life. And in so doing, brought dignity to the lives of so many others, and provided for us inspiration for the rest of our nation’s history.”[1]

When Chavez died in April 1993, more than 30,000 people came from all over the United States to pay their last respects. In his funeral mass, Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney described Chávez as, "a special prophet for the world’s farm workers." For us all.

The Chavez Family

Cesario Estrada Chavez, considered by many to be the most important Latino leader in United States history, was born in Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927 to Librado Chavez and Juana Estrada Chavez. Named for his grandfather, Cesario, he was the second of five children.

The Chavez family ran a country store in addition to farming a small plot of land. The Great Depression (1929—1939), accompanied by years of drought, forced the Chavez family off their land in 1937, when young Cesar was ten years old. The family went to California, joining scores of migrant farm workers. For the next several years, the family often slept at the side of the road, moving from farm to farm following the harvest. In the early 1940s the Chavez family settled in California’s San Joaquin Valley, in a small farm town named Delano.

Due to the constant mobility of the family, Cesar had attended 38 different schools by the time he had reached the 8th grade. When his father suffered an accident and could no longer work, not wanting his mother to go to the fields, Cesar quit school in order to support the family.

As a youngster, he could not understand the importance of school and what it had to do with the life of a migrant farm worker. Eventually he grasped the importance of education and it became his passion later in life. The walls of his office at the United Farm Worker Headquarters in California were lined with hundreds of books in a broad range of categories: economics, cooperatives, unions, philosophy, biographies on Mohandas K. Gandhi and members of the Kennedy family. He believed that, "The end of all education should surely be service to others," a belief that he practiced until his death. [2]

Life was tough for the Chavez family as it was for all migrant worker families. Fortunately, he learned important values from his parents. Through observing his father, he learned the value of hard work. He also saw firsthand the inequities of the farm labor system. His mother was devoutly religious and a compassionate woman who emphasized the importance of caring for those less fortunate. Chavez would later say: "The love for justice that is in us is not only the best part of our being, but it is also the most true to our nature."

At the age of 17, Chavez enlisted in the United States Navy, where he spent two years. Upon the completion of his service, he returned to Delano where he had spent his teenage years and married his old sweetheart, Helen Favela. Chavez always credited the support he received from his wife as the source of his strength which allowed him to devote his life in service to others. Cesar and Helen moved to San Jose, where their first child Fernando was born. Eventually, Cesar and Helen would have seven children together – Fernando, Linda, Paul, Eloise, Sylvia, Anna and Anthony. [3]

Shaping of his beliefs

Chavez' experiences in the migrant camps during his teenage years forged a commitment in his heart that would last throughout his life. The camps were filled with despair and the severely exploited workers were subject to racism. He determined to somehow change these conditions.

Most of the migrant camps had no indoor plumbing and few had electricity. Often the workers had to live in tents. When cabins were available, they were wood and were often drafty and damp. There were no other homes available to these families. The only places available to buy food and necessities were the company-owned stores, usually highly priced, but all that was available to them.

During Chavez' teenage years he encountered stinging racism which made a lasting impression on his conscience. He came to understand that segregation destroys a person’s worth in his own eyes and in the eyes of others. Reflecting later in his life, he said, “I still feel the prejudice, whenever I go through a door. I expect to be rejected, even when I know there is no prejudice there.” [4] His experiences with racial prejudice instilled in him the quality of including and embracing others throughout his life; he understood firsthand the pain of feeling like an outsider.

Devout Roman Catholics, Chavez's mother and grandmother saw to it that he and his siblings had a strong religious upbringing. As a consequence, he became a man who relied on his faith for strength and direction, understanding that religion unified and strengthened people. It is said that César's spiritual beliefs were his guiding force in his everyday life as well as in his political action.

Theory and Practice


Father Donald McDonnell, a local priest whom Chavez met in San Jose, introduced him to the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Saint Francis of Assisi. With these teachings came the concept that non-violence could be an active force for positive change. Chavez once summed up his beliefs thus:

""Non-violence is a very powerful weapon. Most people don't understand the power of non-violence and tend to be amazed by the whole idea. Those who have been involved in bringing about change and see the difference between violence and non-violence are firmly committed to a lifetime of non-violence, not because it is easy or because it is cowardly, but because it is an effective and very powerful way." [5]

Learning to organize

In 1953, Chavez met the man who would teach him how to unite theory and practice. Through his association with Father McDonnell, he met Fred Ross, who was an organizer for the Community Service Organization, a barrio-based self-help group sponsored by Saul Alinsky’s Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation. [6] Ross was in San Jose to recruit members for the Community Service Organization, which assisted its members with immigration and tax problems. The CSO also taught them how to organize to deal with problems such as discrimination and police violence. A life–long friendship developed between the two men.

The guiding concept behind CSO was the belief that local problems could and should be solved at the grassroots level. Chavez thought Ross' simple rules for organizing were revolutionary, and within several months found himself a full-time organizer with the group. He did such things as coordinate voter registration drives and battled racial and economic discrimination against Chicano residents. He organized new CSO chapters throughout Arizona and California, rising quickly to become the president of the organization.

Through his work with the CSO, Chavez became familiar with the problems that challenged urban minorities. He came to understand that the poor and under-educated all needed to be helped, whether they were farm workers or city dwellers. However, his heart remained with the migrant worker. The CSO mission was in the cities, while Chavez knew he had to follow the call of his heart to the fields. He eventually resigned from the CSO in order to organize the farm workers. [7]

While at the CSO, Chavez formed a friendship with Dolores Huerta, who became one of his strongest supporters, and with whom he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). The NFWA used the model of community service that was utilized in the CSO. [8]

United Farm Workers

In 1965 The Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a mostly Filipino union led by Philip Vera Cruz, struck when the Delano grape growers decreased pay rates during harvest season.

Chavez, Huerta, and other leaders of the NFWA met with several National Farm Labor Union organizers, including Vera Cruz, Larry Itliong and Pete Velasco. They decided to join together in striking against the grape growers, an action which eventually led to both unions joining to become the United Farm Workers. Within months, the historic farmworkers march from Delano to Sacramento, the California State Capitol, took place, led by Chávez.

Chavez understood that progress could only come with a new style of protest. Their battle was non-violent and employed the methods of Gandhi and King. There were picket lines in the fields, but the main focus of the protest went to the cities where grapes were sold. Here the workers were joined by religious people, students and labor activists, and the numbers soon swelled to the hundreds. Their methods were simple; they simply asked the shoppers to help the farmworkers by not buying grapes. At its height, over 13 million Americans supported the Delano grape boycott. After five years of struggle, the workers finally won a contract with the major grape growers in California.

The United Farm Workers was formed based upon common goals and beliefs of the various labor organizations. A powerful force developed with the unity of the Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Filipinos, and Filipino-Americans, who had jointly formed the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) on August 22, 1966.

The organization that was birthed through the grape pickers strike went beyond the usual labor union organizations, whose purposes usually focused on the practical issues alone. The issues of this group went deeper, to Chavez' experiences as a youth; to change the treatment of the workers and help them reclaim their dignity. Their work on the grape workers strike eventually came to be known as "La Causa," The Cause. Chavez' vision brought not only the farmworkers, but also students and religious people who were drawn to a dream of bettering the world.

César Chávez' movement inspired the founding of two Midwestern independent unions: Obreros Unidos in Wisconsin in 1966 and The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in Ohio in 1967. Former UFW organizers would also found the Texas Farm Workers Union in 1975.

Chavez' Leadership

Cesar Chavez on leadership:

“There are many reasons for why a man does what he does. To be himself he must be able to give it all. If a leader cannot give it all he cannot expect his people to give anything.”[9]

Chavez' philosophy was to lead by example. He would not ask anyone to do what he had not done himself. He never demanded that others join him or follow his lead, yet people were moved by his example of devotion and sacrifice.

March against injustice

The march undertaken by the United Farmworkers Organizing Committee was planned by Chavez with the goal to gain support of the California Governor, Edmund “Pat” Brown. It was also to publicize the union's cause and the plight of the farmworkers. It was termed a pilgrimage because it had become a spiritual cause for those involved. Chavez marched the entire way, with the procession growing as it went. The unity of the peaceful marchers from a multitude of backgrounds was something that had not been seen in the past. They carried the banners of the union, the flags of the United States and Mexico, and a flag with the image of the Virgin de Guadalupe. Through Chavez' ability to organize and lead by example, the farm workers gained the support of thousands of ordinary citizens. Chavez, in turn, became known as a formidable opponent of injustice. The farm workers had won. It was the first union contract between growers and a farm workers’ union in United States’ history. [10]

25 Day Fast

Chavez was a devout Catholic, as were most of the farm laborers. He held a progressive view of religion, such as was espoused by Catholics who believed in the theories of liberation theology, such as the concept of “preferential option for the poor.” Those active in the United Farm Workers viewed attendance at Catholic Mass not only a spiritual exercise but a call to action as well.

In 1968 Chavez began the first of several public fasts over his lifetime. Fasting was not a foreign concept to this deeply religious man. He believed in fasting as a means of penance as well as a means of strengthening one's spirit. He was also aware of the more public benefits of such a fast. It would draw attention and support on a national scale. The 1968 fast, which lasted 25 days, became a national event. Letters of support came from all over the nation, from the well-known as well as to the common man. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy sent him encouragement. Others around the nation saw almost nightly updates on news programs. This garnered support for his methods of nonviolence and unity, as well as for "The Cause"

Kennedy flew to California to join him in the breaking of his fast. This public show of support garnered the UFWOC's commitment to join his campaign for the California primary. Their support and activism, including a voter registration drive and get-out-the-vote efforts provided for Kennedy’s margin of victory in the state.

The 25-day fast ended with an outdoor Roman Catholic Mass. Too weak to stand or speak, a message written by Chavez was read by a friend. These are perhaps the words that best epitomized Chavez' life:

“Our struggle is not easy. Those that oppose our cause are rich and powerful, and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our own bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons. When we are really honest with ourselves, we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So it is how we use our lives that determine what kind of men we really are. It is my deepest belief that only by giving of our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men.” [11]

Politics and political support

A major shift in the American political landscape is attributed to Chavez and the UFW, which had become a major political force. Mexican-Americans, who until that time had no political or even public voice, had become a force to be reckoned with. They had become empowered to speak out and to mobilize for a cause.

Chavez had come to understand the relationship between economic issues and political participation. This was the beginning point for Hispanic activism and political activity. Eventually thousands of Latinos earned important pubic posts and were elected to political office.

In 1969, Chávez and members of the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valley to the border of Mexico to protest growers' use of illegal aliens as temporary replacement workers during a strike. Joining him on the march were both Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale. Chávez and the UFW would often report suspected illegal aliens who served as temporary replacement workers as well as those who refused to unionize to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. [12]

The UFW during Chavez's tenure was committed to immigration reform. Chavez and Dolores Huerta fought the bracero program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the program in 1964; The UFW was one of the first labor unions to oppose employer sanctions, a federal law that made it illegal to hire illegal aliens in 1973. [13].

Broadening goals, visions and strategies

In the early 1970s, the UFW organized strikes and boycotts to protest for, and later win, higher wages for those farm workers who were working for grape and lettuce growers.

In the next decade, Chavez’ goals and vision began changing. He began focusing on the dangers of pesticide use as well as animal rights. These issues drew positive support from a public just awakening to these concerns. He led a boycott to protest the use of toxic pesticides on grapes, again fasting as a means to garner the public's attention to the situations.

A project of Chavez at the same time was the building of low-cost housing for farmworkers. He also began urban organizing in the Mexican-American community, which he had abandoned years earlier in order to support the migrant farm workers. He also studied and began to employ modern management techniques and group dynamics, including group therapy techniques in the area of drug rehabilitation. [14]


Chávez’ concern for his people never waned, even as he aged and certainly felt the effects of his years of fasting, marching and never-ending activity. He organized political action and coordinated strikes into the early 1990s. He was called on to speak publicly at rallies and universities on the subject of human rights, encouraging continued action in these areas. He traveled extensively in an effort to bring support the cause of pesticide use reform.

Even until the day of his death, he battled in the Courts, defending the rights of workers and bringing to light the abuse of legal loopholes by landowners. [15]

Chavez' effectiveness in his later years perhaps did not have the power as in his earlier years, however, most importantly, he had provided both a source of hope to the disenfranchised and a model for those seeking change. A simple, under–educated laborer reached far beyond his environment, reaching not only the Latino community, but also community activists, the labor movement, idealistic youth, politicians and the national consciousness. In the process of his life-work, he trained a whole generation of activists who went on to apply their skills in other communities and struggles. [16]

In April 1993 Cesar Chavez was in Yuma, Arizona helping to defend the United Farm Workers in a lawsuit brought against them by a California based–vegetable producer. The company demanded that the union pay millions of dollars to compensate the company for their losses due to the boycott of produce in the 1980s.[17] In the midst of this court action, he died peacefully in his sleep. The date was April 22, 1993 when Chavez was 66 years old.

The largest funeral of any labor leader in U.S. history took place on April 29, 1993. Estimates have ranged between 30,000 - 50,000 people were in attendance, having come from all over the United States to pay their last respects. In his funeral mass, Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney described Chávez as, “a special prophet for the world’s farm workers.”

The body of Cesar Chavez was taken to La Paz, the UFW's California headquarters, where he was laid to rest near a bed of roses in front of his office.

Chavez's successor, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, stated, "Every day in California and in other states where farm workers are organizing, Cesar Chavez lives in their hearts. Cesar lives through the Americans he inspired to work nonviolently for social change." [18]


  1. William Jefferson Clinton, August 8, 1994. Remarks by the President in Medal of Freedom Ceremony, Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  2. The Story of Cesar Chavez, las Culturas.com. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  3. Rick Tejada-Flores, Cesar Chavez and the UFW, PBS - Independent Television Service. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  4. César E. Chávez: Dignity, California Model Curriculum. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  5. "Education of the Heart - Quotes by Cesar Chavez", UFW Website. Retrieved May 20, 2008.
  6. Saul Alinsky, Politics in the Zeros. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  7. César E. Chávez - The Power of Organizing, California Model Curriculum. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  8. Tejada-Flores, Cesar Chavez and the UFW, PBS - Independent Television Service. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  9. History, United Farm Workers Official Website. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  10. The Strike, California Model Curriculum. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  11. Chavez: He has the light inside, California Model Curriculum. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  12. Farmworker Collective Bargaining, 1979: Hearings Before the Committee on Labor Human Resources Hearings held in Salinas, Calif., Apr. 26, 27, and Washington, D.C., May 24, 1979
  13. Debunking falsehoods about the UFW’s stand on immigration, United Farm Workers. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  14. Rick Tejada-Flores, Cesar Chavez and the UFW, PBS - Independent Television Service. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  15. Chavez - The End and a New Beginning, California Model Curriculum. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  16. Tejada-Flores. Cesar Chavez and the UFW, PBS - Independent Television Service. Retrieved June 2, 2007.
  17. Rees Lloyd. "Lessons from the life of a great American: Cesar Chavez." [1].farmworkersmovement.org. Retrieved May 20, 2008.
  18. The Story of Cesar Chavez, las Culturas. Retrieved June 2, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dalton, Frederick John. The Moral Vision of César Chávez. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003. ISBN 1570754586
  • Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997. ISBN 0151002398
  • Holmes, Robert L. Nonviolence in theory and practice. Belmont, Calif. Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1990. ISBN 0534121802
  • Levy, Jacques E. and Cesar Chavez. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York: Norton, 1975. ISBN 0393074943
  • Prouty, Marco G. Cesar Chavez, the Catholic Bishops, and the Farmworkers' Struggle for Social Justice. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006. ISBN 0816525552
  • Ross, Fred. Conquering Goliath: Cesar Chavez at the Beginning. Keene, California, United Farm Workers: Distributed by El Taller Grafico, 1989. ISBN 096252980X
  • Soto, Gary. Cesar Chavez: a Hero for Everyone. New York: Aladdin, 2003. ISBN 0689859236

External links

All links retrieved January 12, 2024.


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