Chávez lived out these words spoken by Dr. King. At an early age, he recognized the tremendous struggles and injustice that his community faced, and without a second thought he knew he had to do something about it. A true community organizer, he drew countless determined, hard-working individuals to his movement, La Causa, it was called, as it became recognized across the nation. Together, Chávez and his comrades championed a powerful movement, shedding light on the plight of farm workers in America, and ultimately bringing due justice to this tireless community.
Césario Estrada Chávez was born on March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona. His parents were Mexican-American, their parents having emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1888. Chávez’ parents owned a farm and grocery store in Yuma, but in the late 1930s, during the Depression, the family was unable to pay taxes on their ranch, and was forced to leave the land. At age ten, Chávez and his family moved to San Jose, California looking for work and found jobs as migrant farm workers. Chávez later recalled: “I bitterly missed the ranch. Maybe that is when the rebellion started. Some had been born into the migrant stream. But we had been on the land, and I knew a different way of life. We were poor but we had liberty. The migrant is poor, and he has no freedom.” Migrant workers moved from place to place, and only had work if crops were ready for harvest. Living conditions were horrendous. Housing was dirty, cramped and rundown. They were often forced to live in tents, and had no electricity, running water, or bathrooms.
Chávez never went to high school because his family desperately needed him to work in the fields. When he was in school, teachers actually punished him for speaking Spanish, and students made fun of his accent. He encountered signs that read “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed”. As a teenager he was arrested for sitting in the wrong section of a movie theater (he should have been sitting in the section marked for blacks, Mexicans, and Filipinos).
His lack of institutional education affected him later in life. As a fulltime organizer, he was constantly writing and delivering speeches:
After a house meeting I would lie awake going over the whole thing, trying to see why people laughed at one point, or why they were for one thing and against another. Those late evenings I was also learning to read and write. I had left school in the 7th grade after attending  different schools, and my reading wasn’t the best.
Though school was an incredibly difficult, often painful experience, as he grew older, education became his passion. The walls of his office in La Paz (the United Farm Workers’ headquarters) were lined with hundreds of books ranging from philosophy, economics, cooperatives, and unions, to biographies on Gandhi and the Kennedys’. Chávez believed that, "The end of all education should surely be service to others," a belief that he practiced until his untimely death.
At the age of 19 he joined the U.S. Navy to serve during WWII, and faced more discrimination. He called these years the worst two years of his life. When he returned, he went back to California and married Helen Fabela, who became his rock, in 1948.
He was profoundly influenced by his mother, Juana, a gentle woman with a deep religious faith, who did not believe in violence. During her eulogy in 1991, Chávez remembered:
It was the Depression years of the late 1930s and early ‘40s. But as poor as we were and with what little we had, Mama would send my brother Richard and me out to a railroad yards and other places for “hobos” we could invite to our tent to share a meal. In those days the highways were littered with families whose cars or pickup trucks had broken down–with no place to go and no way to get there. When we were on the road, no matter how badly off we were, our mother would never let us pass a family in trouble.
Our mother taught us not to be afraid to fight – to stand up for our rights. But she also taught us not to be violent. We didn’t even know enough at the time to call it nonviolence. But from an early age, through her dichos and little lessons, she would always talk to us about not fighting, not responding in kind.
His father, Librado, also had a tremendous influence on young Chávez as he joined many unions and participated in countless strikes. Sadly, the strikes weren’t successful: improving working conditions for the laborers would cost money, and business owners were not willing to pay. Instead, they would hire foreign workers to replace striking migrants, hire men to physically assault the strikers, or have the strikers arrested. The media portrayed the striking migrants as violent anti-Americans (despite the fact that they were all citizens). Chávez was outraged by these inhumane conditions his father faced. Thus, both Chávez’ parents and his childhood experiences prepared him to be a great organizer:
There are vivid memories from my childhood – what we had to go through because of low wages and the conditions, basically because there was no union. I suppose if I wanted to be fair I could say that I’m trying to settle a personal score. I could dramatize it by saying that I want to bring social justice to farm-workers. The truth is that I went through a lot of hell, and a lot of people did. If we can even the score a little for the workers then we are doing something.
Creating a Union: The United Farm Workers of America
Chávez’ first official introduction to structured community organizing was with Fred Ross and his Community Service Organization (CSO). Ross was Chávez’ earliest teacher in movement making. Chávez described his first encounter with Ross: “Fred found a cold reception from the people packed into our living room. Then he started talking – and changed my life... At home that night I told Helen [my wife] how what had happened at the meeting was pure magic – and I was going to learn it. Come what may, I wouldn’t stop until I learned how to organize.” “All the time I was observing the things Fred did, secretly,” Chávez recalled, “because I wanted to learn how to organize, to see how it was done. I was impressed with his patience and understanding of people. I thought this was a tool, one of the greatest things he had.”
The CSO taught its members how to organize to change conditions within their communities – an invaluable lesson for Chávez. But, eventually, he became disillusioned by the way the organization functioned:
When I became general director [of CSO] I began to press for a program to organize farm-workers into a union, an idea most of the leadership opposed. So I started a revolt with the CSO. I refused to sit at the head table at meetings, refused to wear a suit and tie, and finally I even refused to shave and cut my hair... At every meeting I got up and gave my standard speech: We shouldn’t be meeting in fancy motels. We were getting away from the people. Farm-workers had to be organized. Nothing happened, so in March 1962 I resigned and came to Delano to begin organizing the Valley on my own.
Thus, in 1962, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, an incredible community organizer and educator from Stockton, California, created the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) founded upon their desire to serve the needs of farm workers and migrant laborers, and stay in close contact with their constituency. It should be noted that, while Chávez was indeed an irreplaceable leader, Huerta’s organizing skills were invaluable for the new organization’s growth and success. They worked very closely together for years, challenging one another to do their utmost to fight for the rights of every single individual in their community.
“We started out by telling workers, ‘We are trying to organize a union. We don’t have money, but if you work together it can be done,’” Chávez explained, “Ninety-five percent of the workers we talked to were very kind. They smiled at us. Five percent asked us questions, and maybe one percent had the spirit and really wanted to do something.” In addition their initial struggle to gain grassroots support, Chávez and Huerta faced endless fundamental challenges in the beginning:
We didn’t have any money for gas and food. Many days we left the house with no money at all. Sometimes we had enough gas to get there but not enough to come back. We were determined to go to the workers. In fact at the very beginning of the organizing drive, we looked for the worst homes in the barrios.... And we went in and asked for a hand out. Inevitably, they gave us food. Then they made a collection and gave us money for gas. They opened their homes and gave us their hearts. And today they are the nucleus of the union’s leadership. We forced ourselves to do this. We kept telling ourselves, ‘If these workers don’t get organized, if we fail, it’s our fault not theirs.’
Their determination resulted in the bedrock establishment of the first union in America dedicated to serving farm workers, which would ultimately be named the United Farm Workers of America. However, their organization did not become an official union right away. Once the NFWA was underway, Chávez convinced his brother, Richard, to sell his house. “Once he got an idea in his head he wouldn’t drop it,” Richard said. They sold his house for $3,700 and started a credit union, creating a fiscal foundation for their dream union.
The movement really caught on in 1964, and by 1965, the NFWA voted to support the largely Filipino-American Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee’s strike against Delano, California area grape growers, thus beginning their five-year strike. The movement thrived on inclusively – everyone was welcome. “All of us a looking for a place under the sun,” Chávez once stated, “a union built by farm workers for farm workers.” The next year, Chávez’ dream came true: the two groups officially merged to form a union: the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). However, though the union now existed, it took years before growers recognized it, and years before fair treatment for farm workers would become a reality.
September 8, 1965 marked the official beginning of the Delano grape strike, la huelga (meaning “strike”). Pete Velasco, a Filipino organizer and dear companion to Chávez, reported that picketing started at 4 a.m. that morning, and most of the people in the picket line were women.
The Plan of Delano was published in the UFW’s newspaper, El Malcriado, on March 17, 1966. It laid out the plan for the liberation of the farm workers associated with the Delano Grape Strike in California. It’s fourth clause stated:
We are suffering. We have suffered, and we are not afraid to suffer in order to win our cause. We have suffered unnumbered ills and crimes in the name of the law of the land. Our men, women, and children have suffered not only the basic brutality of stoop labor, and the most obvious injustices of the system; they have also suffered the desperation of knowing that the system caters to the greed of callous men and not to our needs. Now we will suffer for the purpose of ending the poverty, the misery, and the injustice with the hope that our children will not be exploited as we have been. They have imposed hungers on us, and now we hunger for justice. We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live.
In a speech two years into the strike, Chávez elaborated on this theme, the strength and humanity of the farm worker:
The farm worker has learned that his sub-human existence is not inevitable. He has awakened to the realization that something better is possible for himself and his family. Laws are not going to stop strikes and boycotts so long as his honest, law-abiding efforts to improve his condition are met with massive, hostile grower resistance... The best insurance against strikes and boycotts lies not in repressive legislation, but in strong unions that will satisfy the farm worker’s hunger for decency and dignity and self-respect.
Despite the farm workers vocal, but peaceful, demonstrations, and Chávez ceaseless, rational negotiations, growers responded violently to the strike. They threatened strikers with shotguns and burned their picket signs. But Chávez insisted that the strikers remain nonviolent.
By 1967 growers were no more sympathetic to the farm workers’ cause. So, Chávez called for a national boycott on grapes. It worked. Californians stopped buying grapes, supporters picketed supermarkets, and eventually major cities refused to accept shipments of grapes because nobody would buy them. “The boycott is one of the most powerful weapons that poor people and people who struggle for justice have in this world,” Chávez explained, “It’s so powerful because it’s really nothing more than the extension of love from one human being to the other.”
Compassion for the farm workers in California began to spread, and the boycott began to gain international recognition. On April 16, 1969, four years into the strike, Chávez spoke before the Subcommittee of Labor of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare:
“Our cause, our strike against table grapes and our international boycott are all founded upon our deep conviction that the form of collective self-help which is unionization holds far more hope for the farm workers than any other approach, whether public or private. This conviction is what brings spirit, high hope and optimism to everything we do.”
During a speech in Austin Texas, which he gave in both English and Spanish (Chávez was constantly working with a bilingual community:
“…el idioma ingles es para los negocios…. Y el idioma esapañol es el idioma de los ángeles y también se usa para enamorar”. “English is the language of business; Spanish is the language for angels and people in love” ), Chávez again spelled out the reason why farm workers were deserving of equal rights and far treatment. Their basic needs as human beings, and the notion of civil kindness and compassion, were reasons that seemed to elude growers. Just as it was during Chávez’ father’s time, growers were still far more concerned with reaping profit than creating livable working conditions for their employees. In his speech, Chávez stated:
It’s outright disgraceful that this employer, one employer, is able… to hold people back from having their rightful place in society by having a union. It’s high time that not only in Texas but California – everywhere across the land – that workers should not be made to suffer… for the right that was given to them, not by employer, not by any legislation – by inherent right. They were born with the right to be able to join unions or union of their choice.”
Despite endless, often violent resistance, Chávez and the strikers were absolutely relentless. Finally, in July of 1970, after five years of strikes, boycotts, marches, and lobbying, most of the grape growers had agreed to sign contracts with their pickers. This was the first major victory for the UFW. Their second major victory came in 1975 when Jerry Brown, who was Governor of California at the time, passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. It was the first law of its kind in the United States, granting farm workers in California the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions. These huge successes were not stopping points though: Chávez continued to work to advance farm workers’ rights. He organized strikes, boycotts, and other protests to win fair pay, job security, health insurance, retirement benefits, and decent working conditions. By 1972 the UFW had more than 30,000 members, a stark contrast to the 368 attendees at the very first meeting in 1962.
Fasting and Nonviolence
Strikes and boycotts were not the only tactics Chávez used to draw attention to the cause of migrant farm workers. By 1968, farm workers everywhere were angry and worried that they could not secure their rights and win their cause without violence. Chávez knew that violence would compromise the integrity of their movement, and would ultimately sacrifice their own self-respect. He did not want to see his people fall prey to the inhuman tactics by which they were being harmed and manipulated. He sought a way to disprove their beliefs, and demonstrate that they could build a great union and “secure the spirit of all people” through a rededication and recommitment to the struggle for justice through nonviolence. So, in 1968 Chávez went on a water only, 25-day fast. He repeated the fast in 1972 for 24 days, and again in 1988, for 36 days.
Chávez explained his belief in the power of fasting:
A fast is first and foremost personal. It is a fast for the purification of my own body, mind, and soul. The fast is also a heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all those who work beside me in the farm worker movement. The fast is also an act of penance for those in positions of moral authority and for all men and women activists who know what is right and just, who know that they could and should do more. The fast is finally a declaration of non-cooperation with supermarkets who promote and sell and profit from California table grapes. During the past few years I have been studying the plague of pesticides on our land and our food… The evil is far greater than even I had thought it to be, it threatens to choke out the life of our people and also the life system that supports us all. The solution to this deadly crisis will not be found in the arrogance of the powerful, but in solidarity with the weak and helpless. I pray to God that this fast will be a preparation for a multitude of simple deeds for justice. Carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world. Together, all things are possible.
Through fasting, Chávez hoped to make very clear the purpose of the UFW. Their aims and actions were not a retaliation, a lashing out at growers and the other individuals who perpetuated the injustice of farm workers, rather they were a sincere demand to redirect public attention towards the plight of these workers. They were a call for justice through cooperation, not punitive measures.
In a letter to E.L. Barr Jr., the president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League in 1969, Chávez further clarified the nonviolent aim of the movement:
We advocate militant nonviolence as our means for social revolution and to achieve justice for our people.... Participation and self-determination remain the best experience of freedom; and free men instinctively prefer democratic change and even protect the rights guaranteed to seek it. Only the enslaved in despair have need of violent overthrow…. we do not hate you [Mr. Barr] or rejoice to see your industry destroyed; we hate the agribusiness system that seeks to keep us enslaved and we shall overcome and change it not by retaliation or bloodshed but by determined non-violent struggle carried on by those masses of farm workers who intend to be free and human.”
In his speech marking the end of his first fast on March 10, 1968, Chávez made a bold statement:
“When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit that our lives are all that really belongs to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of men we are…. 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!”
When Chávez completed his final fast, his 36-day Fast for Life, on August 21, 1988, both men and women responded to this call to justice: The Reverend Jesse Jackson took up where Chávez left off, fasting on water for three days before passing the fast on to other celebrities and leaders. The fast was passed to actor Martin Sheen; President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Reverend J. Lowery; actors Edward Olmos and Emilio Estevez; Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy; legislator Peter Chacon; actress Julie Carmen; actor Danny Glover; singer Carly Simon; and actress Whoopi Goldberg – all standing in solidarity with Chávez and the UFW.
Upon the conclusion of his twenty-four-day fast for justice on June 4, 1972, Chávez made a statement that beautifully summed up the purpose of his life: “We can choose to use our lives for others to bring about a better and more just world for our children. People who make that choice will know hardship and sacrifice. But if you give yourself totally to the nonviolent struggle you will never go hungry and never be alone. And in giving of yourself you will discover a whole new life full of meaning and love.”
Chávez was an advocate for farm workers’ rights until his death on April 23, 1993 at age 66. Though he died young, Chávez passed away peacefully in his sleep. He was laid to rest in La Paz, meaning “the peace”, the UFW’s headquarters in the California foothills. More than 50,000 people attended his funeral in Delano, California, the birth site of the United Farm Workers. In 1994, Chávez was posthumously awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. In the citation accompanying America's highest civilian honor, Clinton lauded Chávez for having “faced formidable, often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence.”
“He was almost like god,” UFW Al Rojas said, “We would do anything. Here was a man who instilled a lot of courage.”
Pete Velasco, who helped Chávez and Huerta build the UFW, stated:
“He had taken us by the hand and shown us how to walk in the jungle and not be afraid. He had taught us to maintain dignity by acting like a first class citizen. ‘Because you are a first class citizen,’ he said.”
After his death, his family and friends started the César E. Chávez Foundation. Its mission is to educate people about Chávez and his values, and inspire them to carry on his work.
When President Clinton awarded Chávez with the Medal of Freedom, it was Helen Chávez, César’s wife, who accepted it on his behalf. Then, Chávez's successor, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, thanked the president on behalf of the United Farm Workers and said, “Every day in California and in other states where farm workers are organizing, César Chávez lives in their hearts. César lives wherever Americans' he inspired work nonviolently for social change.”
Clarence B. Jones and Joel Engel, What Would Martin Say? (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008) 106.
César Chávez, The Words of César Chávez, Eds. Richard J. Jensen and John C. Hammerback (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002), 34.
César Chávez, “The Organizer’s Tale”, Ohio Citizen Action, 1966, 21 October 2010, <http://www.ohiocitizen.org/about/training/chavez.html>
“The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle”. Dir. Ray Telles and Rick Tejada-Flores. The Cinema Guild. 1996.
“The Fight in the Fields”
“The Fight in the Fields”
“The Fight in the Fields”
“The Fight in the Fields”