“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.” César Estrada Chávez
César Estrada Chávez was considered a giant of a man amongst social activists. During his lifetime, César experienced discrimination, prejudices, and systematic political and economic oppression, César was a visionary who lived life with a single purpose, to make the world more just and equitable for working people. It was this purpose that drove him to embrace the life of a community organizer with the belief that people have the power within themselves to improve their own lives if they are shown how to organize as a collective body. César was often quoted as saying “Once social change begins; it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.” Against overwhelming odds and economic and political opposition by some of America’s most powerful agricultural and financial corporations, César Chávez and Dolores C. Huerta succeeded in bringing union representation to hundreds of thousands of farmworkers in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. The benefit of their effortsto build a union of farmworkers, simple people with the humblest of beginnings, is still felt today with the enactment of hundreds of laws throughout the country designed to protect farmworkers - the hardest working people our country has ever seen.
César was a humble man shaped by economic circumstances which impacted him and his family when César was a child. Like many other small family farmers throughout the country, César’s family lost their farm during the Great Depression of the 1930s. César’s father Librado, his mother Juanita, along with César’s two brothers and two sisters, were forced to migrate to California to search for work. With his father disabled in 1942, Chávez left school while in the seventh grade to work full-time in the fields to help support his family. Traveling from town to town, César’s family was forced to live in run-downed labor camps, squalid shacks, tents, and abandoned railroad cars.
Because agricultural growers maintained a tight grip on local police and small-town governments, farmworkers throughout the country suffered many abuses and enjoyed little or no rights. Growers and their goons routinely exploited workers and their families, cheating them out of their wages, forcing them and their children to work long hours under the hot sun or freezing cold, and taking advantage of young women. There were no laws requiring growers to give workers proper tools, bathrooms in the fields, or rest breaks. Workers often had to perform inhumane stoop labor, causing them to experience severe backpain. It was not unusual for workers to be sprayed with dangerous pesticides while working in the fields. If they were injured on the job, they had no insurance to pay them for their injuries. Young children had to work alongside their parents just so they could earn enough to eat.
It was César’s dream that a union of farmworkers could best end these cruel conditions and fight to protect workers from greedy growers who only worried about making a profit and ignored how badly workers were treated. Since the founding of our country, in the western and southern parts of the United States, it was American Indians, African Americans, Mexican Americans and Chinese who worked the fields. When organized labor fought in the 1930s and 40s to pass national laws to protect workers, farmworkers were excluded. This exclusion was part of America’s long-standing practice of discriminating against minorities and people of color.
Having dropped out of school and growing up as a farmworker, César was left with few career options. In 1944, César enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of seventeen. After he was discharged at the close of World War II, César continued to work in the fields of California until 1952, when he was recruited by Fred Ross, Sr., to become a community organizer for the Community Service Organization, a Mexican American civil rights group. At first, César was not impressed with Fred Ross and did not believe that poor Mexican Americans like César could be organized into a political force. Fred Ross, however, was of the mind-set, that “a good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.” Fred Ross had gone to César’s home in the San Jose barrio known as “Sal Si Puedes” and talked about how people like César and his family could build power one house meeting at a time. César would later comment “[Fred] started talking - and changed my life.” “Fred did such a good job of how people could build power that I could even taste it.” Fred Ross, Sr., would become César’s life-long mentor. It was Fred Ross who would introduce César to Dolores Huerta. Dolores had also been recruited and trained by Fred Ross to be an organizer for CSO. Dolores had been organizing farmworkers in Stockton and left her job as a schoolteacher because she could not stomach to see farmworker children come to school hungry and without shoes.
César would later become CSO's National Director in 1958. In 1962, César lobbied CSO to advocate for farmworkers, the most abused members of our society. When the CSO leadership turned down César’s request, César decided to leave CSO and asked Dolores Huerta to join him in forming a union for farmworkers. César believed that “we cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community . . . our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” With no money and no organizational support, César - with his wife Helen and their eight children, and Dolores – now divorced with seven children, travelled to Delano, California to form the National Farm Workers Association. Their plan was to build a union by quietly and slowly organizing workers for a couple of years. Once their organization was established, they intended to call for a farmworkers’ union and take-on the California’s grape grower industry, the largest employer of farmworkers in the country.
In 1965, however, their plans were abruptly changed. Filipino farmworkers under the banner of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee had been organizing in the grape fields of the Coachella Valley and had some limited success in securing higher wages. When the Filipino workers started harvesting grapes in Delano that same year, Delano grape growers refused to meet the Filipino workers’ demands for higher wages and forced them to go on strike. Larry Itliong, one of the leaders of AWOC, asked César and Dolores to join their strike. With cries of “La Causa!” and in solidarity with their Filipino brothers and sisters, César and Dolores led thousands of Mexican American farmworkers on strike in what is now known as the famous “Delano Grape Strike of 1965.” César, Dolores, and Larry merged NFWA and AWOC, renaming their new union the “United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.” UFWOC would later become the United Farm Workers. The UFW
would also play a critical role in creating the Chicano Movement.
César’s brother Richard E. Chávez designed the famous red UFW flag emblazoned with the black Aztec eagle in a white circle. Now used as the symbol for many social causes, the flag’s red background represents the sacrifices and commitment expected from those fighting to build a union for farmworkers, the white represents hope for a better future for oppressed people, the black represents the darkness of the farmworkers’ plight and struggle, and the black eagle represents the pride of all workers who fight for justice.
To bring national attention to the farmworker struggle, César led hundreds of farmworkers and supporters on a historic 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, the California state capitol. Holding banners depicting la Virgen de Guadalupe, marchers demanded that farmworkers be given a union contract and paid better wages. The march was so successful that the UFW signed its first contract with the Schenley Corporation. This contract gave workers rest breaks, a medical plan, a pension plan, and prohibited Schenley foremen from firing workers at-will and without cause. The large Delano growers, however, were adamant in their refusal to recognize or negotiate with the UFW. California growers had successfully crushed previous attempts to organize farmworkers; such as the famous Pixley Cotton Strike of 1933. As the UFW’s grape strike dragged on, many farmworkers became impatient. César who had studied the writings of St. Francis of Assisi and adopted Mahatma Ghandi’s philosophy of non-violent disobedience, demanded that the UFW leadership and its members commit to non-violence - even in the face of harassment, threats, and violence by growers and police. To show his own commitment to non-violence, César began a 25-day water only fast. Once again, César was able to garner international attention to the unjust conditions of farmworkers throughout the United States. At the end of the fast, Senator Robert Kennedy called César “one of the heroic figures of our time.” César and the UFW strikers also received support from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote “our separate struggles [the civil rights and the farmworkers’ struggle] are really one, a struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.”
In an effort to create economic pressure and force growers to the bargaining table, Dolores Huerta convinced César to launch an international boycott of California table-grapes in 1968. By asking Americans to not buy grapes, this strategy enabled UFW striking farmworkers, who had now been on strike for almost three years, to leverage the purchasing power of American consumers. When the Delano grape growers realized that the Grape Boycott was gaining national support and that they were losing money, they hired hitmen to kill César. Even though César’s wife Helen, Dolores and César’s brother Richard were fearful that César would suffer the same fate as Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., César refused to call off the boycott and became more committed by organizing university students, labor organizations, churches, and boycott committees throughout the country. The Civil Rights Movement was rapidly spreading across the country at this same time and Mexican Americans/Chicanos in particular were invigorated by César, the UFW striking farmworkers, the Grape Boycott, and the cries of Huelga! and Viva La Causa! By 1970, more than 17 million people across the U.S. and Europe had stopped buying or eating grapes. Not wanting to fight anymore, dozens of California growers signed contracts with the UFW in the grape, lettuce, citrus, and wine industries, giving farmworkers union contracts with higher wages and improved working conditions.
After these same contracts expired in 1973, the UFW was again forced to go on strike against growers in California and Arizona. The strike became violent when growers brought in goons and thugs to beat up workers. After several farmworkers were killed on the picket-lines, César again called for a national boycott of California table grapes. Two years later, the California legislature passed the Agriculture Labor Relations Act, the first law in the country granting farmworkers the right to organize and elect a union of their own choosing.
In the 1980s, César became concerned about the increased level of pesticides that workers and consumers were being exposed to. In 1988, César again responded with great courage by embarking on a 36 day fast to bring attention to the high-level of cancer-related deaths in farmworker communities. This fast severely afflicted his body, but it did not damage his spirit. He continued to travel across the country, including New Mexico, demanding that growers stop using dangerous pesticides on the food we eat.
His body broken by struggle, on April 23, 1993 César died in his sleep not more than 10 miles from where he was born and less than a month after visiting Albuquerque. He was 66 years of age. César was in Yuma, Arizona testifying against a lettuce grower and the State of Arizona for passing a law which made it illegal for farmworkers to boycott lettuce. The UFW would eventually get the law overturned.
In 1994, César was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by
President Bill Clinton, the highest honor our government can bestow on an American civilian. In 2012, the United States Navy named a ship in honor of César Estrada Chavez. There are many communities throughout the country that have named streets, schools, and libraries in honor César.
César felt that “history will judge societies and governments - and their institutions - not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.” The plight of farmworkers and working people continues to this day. Many of the people that César taught to organize are now elected officials and lead major labor organizations. Que Viva César Chávez!
Edited by Emilio J. Huerta, 2019