Cesar Chavez (1927–1993)

2012-02-09 12:40:56

Cesar Chavez, farm worker, civil rights activist, and union leader, was born near Yuma, Arizona, to Librado Chavez and Juana Estrada, who owned a farm and several small businesses. In 1938, the Chavez family lost their property and became migrant farm workers. Chavez’s childhood was wrought with racial discrimination and hard work, which severely limited his school attendance.

Chavez enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II but returned to migrant farming in 1946. Shortly after, Chavez joined the National Agricultural Workers’ Union (NAWU). This started a lifetime dedication to social change and fair treatment for Mexican Americans, particularly migrant farmers. In 1948, Chavez married Helen Fabela and resided in Delano, California, where he was a migrant laborer.

In 1952, Chavez volunteered for the Community Services Organization (CSO) and later became a paid organizer. The CSO, a body devoted to promoting political and civil rights for Mexican Americans, committed itself to the formation of new CSO chapters, voter registration drives, Citizenship campaigns, educational improvements, urban developments, and other issues important to improving Mexican Americans’ quality of life. Chavez eventually held the position of General Director for the CSO and remained active until 1962, when he left to form a union dedicated to migrant farmers.

Chavez started the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which became the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1973. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez became known as a natural leader, dedicated to a militant, yet racially unbiased, nonviolent, grass roots movement. To Chavez, the organization was more than a union; it was a social movement aimed at fixing the restricted civil liberties most members faced. He demonstrated his dedication by fasting and involving union members in masses, boycotts, pilgrimages, and processionals. In doing so, he appealed to the Mexican- American culture of the farm workers. This heritage included Catholicism and a belief in the merits of sacrifice to fight injustice. Chavez also influenced and actively supported the Chicano civil rights movement until some of the reformers advocated violence.

Chavez’s union struck numerous times, the first in May 1965. The most notable strike began in September 1965. Another union, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) struck and realized it needed the support of the NFWA. Although reluctant, the NFWA leadership voted to strike as well. Eventually, the two unions merged and formed the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). The strikers used nonviolent tactics such as fasts, pilgrimages, demonstrations, an international grape boycott, and political campaigning amid violence from opposition. In 1970, the five-year long strike ended triumphantly for the union. Most of its demands were met, and many grape growers signed contracts with the strikers. The UFW had subsequent strikes, but none had the longevity of the Delano grape strike.

Later, California farm workers achieved government- regulated collective bargaining through the instatement of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Unfortunately for the UFW, the elections of President Ronald Reagan and California Governor George Deukmejian, both agribusiness allies, slowed union achievements nationwide. Some claimed the UFW had lost its power and criticized Chavez. The reformer and union leader died in his sleep at the age of sixty-six and inadvertently rejuvenated the farm workers’ resolve. In 1994, President William Clinton posthumously awarded Chavez the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.


References and Further Reading

  • Dalton, Frederick John. The Moral Vision of Cesar Chavez. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003
  • Dunne, John Gregory. Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967
  • Etulain, Richard W., ed. Cesar Chavez: A Brief Biography with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2002
  • Hammerback, John C., and Richard J. Jensen. The Rhetorical Career of Cesar Chavez. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998
  • Jensen, Richard J., and John C. Hammerback, eds. The Words of Cesar Chavez. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2002
  • Levy, Jacques E. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975
  • Taylor, Ronald B. Chavez and the Farm Workers. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.