Cesar Estrada Chavez was an American farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist. He is the best known Latino civil rights activist. He was born on March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona to a poor Mexican American family. He grew up in an adobe home with four other siblings. His family owned a grocery store and a ranch, but their land got taken away during the Great Depression in 1938. His family’s home was taken away too after his father had agreed to eighty acres of land in exchange for the deed to the house, an agreement which was later broken.
Later, when his father attempted to buy back the house, he could not pay the interest on the loan and the house was sold back to its original owner. His family then moved to California to become migrant farm workers. They suffered a lot in California. They would pick peas and lettuce in the winter, cherries and beans in the spring, corn and grapes in the summer, and cotton in the fall. When he was a teenager, him and his older sister Rita would help other farm workers and neighbors by driving those unable to drive to the hospital to see a doctor. He did not like school as a kid, because he spoke only Spanish at home.
The teachers only spoke English. Spanish was forbidden in school. He remembers being punished with a ruler to his knuckles for violating the rule. He also remembers that some schools were segregated and he felt that in the integrated schools he was like a monkey in a cage. He attended thirty-seven schools. He felt that education had nothing to do with his farm worker/migrant way of life. In 1942 he graduated from the eighth grade. Since his father was in a bad accident he did not continue school, instead he became a full time migrant farm worker, not wanting his mother to work in the fields.
In 1946, at the age of 19, he joined the U. S. Navy, which was then segregated, and served for two years. When he returns he marries Helena Favela and has eight children He worked in the fields until 1952, when he became an organizer for the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. Father Donald McDonnell who served in Santa Clara County introduced Fred Ross, a community organizer, to Cesar Chavez. Cesar Chavez advised Mexican Americans to register and vote, and he traveled throughout California and made speeches in support of workers’ ris nts. He became CSO’s national director in 1958.
In 1962, Chavez left the CSO and co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta. It was later called the United Farm Workers. He supported the Delano Grape Strike. Chavez and the NFWA led a strike of California grape pickers on the historic farm workers march from Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento for similar goals. The UFW encouraged all Americans to boycott table grapes as a show of support. The strike lasted five years and attracted national attention. In March 1966, the U. S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare’s Subcommittee on Migratory Labor held hearings in California on the strike.
During the hearings, subcommittee member Robert F. Kennedy showed his support for the striking workers. In the early 1970s, the UFW organized strikes and boycotts, including the Salad Bowl strike, the largest farm worker strike in U. S. history, to protest for, and later win, higher wages for those farm workers who were working for grape and lettuce growers. Cesar was willing to sacrifice his own life so that the union would continue and that violence was not used. He only used nonviolent methods to bring attention to the difficulties of a farm worker. The UFW during Chavez’s was committed to restricting immigration.
Chavez and Dolores Huerta, fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition started from their belief that the program undermined U. S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Since the Bracero Program ensured a constant supply of cheap immigrant labor for growers, immigrants could not protest any infringement of their rights, lest they be fired and replaced. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the Bracero Program in 1964. Cesar fasted many times. In 1968 Cesar went on a water only, 25 day fast. He repeated the fast in 1972 for 24 days, and again in 1988, this time for 36 days.
In 1969, Chavez and members of the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valleys to the border of Mexico to protest growers’ use of illegal aliens as strikebreakers. Joining him on the march was Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U. S. Senator Walter Mondale. In its early years, the UFW and Cesar went so far as to report illegal aliens who served as strikebreaking replacement workers to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The UFW decided to organize a 110-mile march by a small group of UFW leaders from San Francisco to the E & J Gallo Winery in Modesto.
Just a few hundred marchers left San Francisco on February 22, 1975. By the time they reached Modesto on March 1, more than 15,000 people had joined the march route. The success of the Modesto march garnered significant media attention, and helped convince Governor Brown and others that the UFW still had significant popular support. On June 4, 1975, Governor Brown signed into law the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act which established collective bargaining for farmworkers. The act set up the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board to oversee the process.
He soon faced many setbacks though. For example, when Proposition 14, which would guarantee the right of union organizers to visit and recruit farmworkers, even if it meant trespassing on private property controlled by farm owners failed, he fired many people for being disloyal or being spies for either the Republican Party or the Communists. He also met with the President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos in Manila and endorsed the regime, which was seen by human rights advocates and religious leaders as a vicious dictatorship, which also caused Philip Vera Cruz to resign from the rganization.
During this time, Chavez also clashed with other UFW members about policy issues. By the end of the 1970s, only one member of the UFW’s original board of directors remained. In 1988, Chavez attempted another grape boycott, to protest the exposure of farmworkers to pesticides. Bumper stickers reading “NO GRAPES” and “UVAS NO” were widespread. However, the boycott failed. As a result, he took his last fast. He died peacefully in his sleep on April 23, 1993, of unspecified natural causes in a rental apartment in San Luis, Arizona..
Cesar Chavez also won many awards for his contributions and had many accomplishments. He won the Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged in 1973. In 1992, he was awarded the Catholic Church’s Pacem in Terris Award, named after a 1963 encyclical by Pope John XXIII calling upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. On September 8, 1994, he was presented after his death with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. The award was received by Helen Chavez.
On December 6, 2006, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver admitted Chavez into the California Hall of Fame. One of his accomplishments is that he co-founded the United Farm Workers Association in 1962 with Delores Huerta. He also made the first union contracts requiring rest periods, toilets in the fields, clean drinking water, hand washing facilities, banning discrimination in employment and sexual harassment of women workers, requiring protective clothing against pesticide exposure, prohibiting pesticide spraying while workers are in the fields and outlawing DDT and other dangerous pesticides.
He oversaw the first genuine collective bargaining agreements between farm workers and growers in American history. He established the first comprehensive union medical and later dental and vision benefits for farm workers and their families through a joint union-employer health and welfare fund, the Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan, which has paid out more than $250 million in benefits. He achieved on making the first and only functioning pension plan for retired farm workers, the Juan de la Cruz Pension Plan.
He oversaw the first union contracts provided for profit sharing and parental leave. He was the reason for extended farm workers state coverage under unemployment insurance, disability and workers’ compensation, as well as federal amnesty rights for immigrants. There have also been books on his life. There are also a lot of parks in San Jose, Berkeley, Sacramento and Long Beach that are named after him. In 2004, the National Chavez Center was opened on the UFW national headquarters campus.
There are also many elementary schools named in his honor. The University of Arizona campus honored him with a building called, ‘Cesar E. Chavez Building’. Cesar Chavez’s birthday is celebrated in Texas, California and Colorado as a state holiday in order to honor his work. Many, but not all, state government offices, community colleges, and libraries are closed. Many public schools in the three states are also closed. Cesar Chavez is remembered today for many reasons.
One reason is his efforts to gain better working conditions for the thousands of workers who labored on farms for low wages and under severe conditions. Cesar and his United Farm Workers union battled California grape growers by holding nonviolent protests. Cesar got the idea for nonviolent actions from Martin Luther King Jr. , who was a leader in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans. He also went on hunger strikes, protesting by refusing to eat for long periods of time like I wrote before.
In 1968 he fasted for 25 days in support of the UFW commitment to nonviolence. He was inspired to fast by M. K. Gandhi of India. He is also remembered today for his peaceful tactics and public support for the union, he and the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee were able to negotiate contracts for higher wages and better treatment of agricultural workers with California grape producers. He is remembered the best for gaining farm worker rights, using nonviolence to gain farm worker rights and for fasting to show his support.