César Estrada Chávez (March 31, 1927 – April 23, 1993) was a Mexican
American (Chicano) farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist who
co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United
Farm Workers. Supporters say
his work led to numerous improvements for union workers. He is considered a hero
for farm labourers, and fought to help keep wages higher and improve work safety
rules. He is hailed as one of the greatest American civil rights leaders after
Martin Luther King, Jr.. His birthday has become a holiday in four U.S. states.
Many parks, cultural centres, libraries, schools, and streets have been named in
his honour in cities across the United States.
Chávez (named after his grandfather) was born near Yuma, Arizona on March 31,
1927 to an American family of Mexican and Basque descent. His early life was
difficult: among other problems, the small adobe home where Chávez was born was
swindled from his family by dishonest businessmen: Chávez's father Librado had
agreed to clear 80 acres of land and add to the home in exchange for the deed to
40 acres of land, but the agreement was broken and the land was sold to a man
named Justus Jackson. The elder Chávez went to a lawyer who advised him to
borrow money to buy the land, but when he could not pay the interest on the
loan, the lawyer bought the land and sold it back to the original owner.
Chávez did not like school as a youth. He remembered being punished with a
ruler to his knuckles for speaking Spanish. Some schools were segregated, and he
frequently encountered racist remarks. He and his brother Richard attended
thirty-seven schools over the course of their lives.
Chávez felt that education had nothing to do with his farm worker/migrant way
of life. In 1942, he graduated from the eighth grade. He could not attend high
school because his father Librado had been in an accident and did not want his
mother Juana to work in the fields. Instead, César became a farm worker.
Chávez served in the Navy for a two-year enlistment during World War II
aboard ship. His tour of duty included the campaigns to take Guam, Saipan, and
In 1948 Chávez married Helen Fabela. They honeymooned in California by
visiting all the California Missions from Sonoma to San Diego. They settled in
Delano and started their family. They had eight children, Fernando, Sylvia,
Linda, Anna, Paul, Eloise, Elizabeth and Anthony.
Chávez went to San Jose where he met and was influenced by Father Donald
McDonnell. They talked about farm workers and strikes. Chávez read about St.
Francis, Gandhi and nonviolence. After Father McDonnell came another very
influential person, Fred Ross, and Chávez became an organizer for Ross's
organization, the Community Service Organization (CSO). His first task was voter
Career as a labor leader
Chávez was taught and trained by Pete Fielding, and started working as a
union organizer in 1952 for the Community Services Organization (CSO), a Latino
civil rights group. Chávez urged Mexican-Americans to register and vote, and he
traveled throughout California and made speeches in support of workers' rights.
He became CSO's national director in the late 1950s.
Four years later, Chávez left the CSO. He co-founded the National Farm
Workers Association (NFWA) with Dolores Huerta.
In 1965, Filipino farm workers initiated the Delano grape strike on September
8 to protest in favor of higher wages. Six months later, Chávez and the NFWA led
a strike of California grape-pickers on the historic farmworkers march from
Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento for similar goals. In
addition to the strike, the UFW encouraged all Americans to boycott table grapes
as a show of support. The strike lasted five years and attracted national
attention. When the U.S. Senate Subcommittee looked into the situation, Robert
Kennedy gave Chávez his total support. This effort resulted in the first major
labor victory for U.S. farm workers.
These activities led to similar movements in South Texas in 1966, where the
UFW supported fruit workers in Starr County, Texas, and led a march to Austin,
in support of UFW farm workers' rights. In the Midwest, 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
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. During the 1980s, Chávez led a boycott to protest the use
of toxic pesticides on grapes. Bumper stickers read "NO GRAPES" and "NO UVAS"
(the translation in Spanish) were widespread. He again fasted to draw public
attention. UFW organizers believed that a reduction in produce sales by 15% was
sufficient to wipe out the profit margin of the boycotted product. These strikes
and boycotts generally ended with the signing of bargaining agreements.
Later in life, education became César's passion. The walls of his office in
Keene, California (United Farm Worker headquarters) were lined with hundreds of
books ranging in subject from philosophy, economics, cooperatives, and unions,
to biographies on Gandhi and the Kennedys.
César Chávez and illegal immigration
The UFW during Chávez's tenure was committed to restricting immigration.
César Chávez and Dolores Huerta fought the Bracero Program that existed from
1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemed from their belief that the program
undermined U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Their efforts
contributed to Congress ending the bracero 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. Later during the 1980s, still under the
presidency of Chávez, Dolores Huerta, the cofounder of the UWF, was key in
getting the amnesty provisions in the 1986 federal immigration act.
In a few occasions, concerns that undocumented migrant labor would undermine
UFW strike campaigns lead to a number of controversial events which the UFW
describes as anti-strikebreaking events, but which have also been interpreted as
being anti-illegal immigration. In 1969, Chávez 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 were
both Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale.
In its early years, Chávez and the UFW went so far as to report illegal aliens
who served as strikebreaking replacement workers as well as those who refused to
unionize to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
In 1973, the United Farm Workers set up a "wet line" to prevent Mexican
immigrants from entering the United States to prevent them from breaking a
strike. During one such event in
which Chávez was not involved, some UFW members under the guidance of Chávez's
cousin Manuel physically attacked the strikebreakers, after attempts to
peacefully convince the illegal aliens not to cross failed.
Animal rights advocate
Chávez was an ethical vegan and vocal advocate of animal rights.
He stated, "I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom. It
was my dog Boycott who led me to question the right of humans to eat other
sentient beings." He also said,
"Kindness and compassion towards all living beings is a mark of a civilized
society. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting
and rodeos are all cut from the same defective fabric: violence. Only when we
have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well
In accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from In Defense of Animals in 1992,
Chávez stated, "We need, in a special way, to work twice as hard to help people
understand that the animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and
love them as we love ourselves...We know we cannot be kind to animals until we
stop exploiting them — exploiting animals in the name of science, exploiting
animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and
yes, exploiting animals in the name of food."
Chávez's granddaughter, Christine Chávez, continues not only César's legacy
of civil rights and labor movement activism
, but also speaks out in support of animal rights and has called for a
ban on foie gras due to what she believes is extreme animal cruelty in its
In 1973, college professors in Mount Angel, Oregon established the first
four-year Mexican-American college in the United States. They chose César Chávez
as their symbolic figurehead, naming the college Colegio Cesar Chavez. In the
book Colegio Cesar Chavez, 1973-1983: A Chicano Struggle for Educational
Self-Determination author Carlos Maldonado writes that Chávez visited the
campus twice, joining in public demonstrations in support of the college. Though
Colegio Cesar Chavez closed in 1983, it remains a recognized part of Oregon
history. On its website the Oregon Historical Society writes, "Structured as a
'college-without-walls,' more than 100 students took classes in Chicano Studies,
early childhood development, and adult education. Significant financial and
administrative problems caused Colegio to close in 1983. Its history represents
the success of a grassroots movement."
In 1992 Chávez was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award. It was named after a
1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of good
will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in Terris is Latin for "Peace on
César Chávez died on April 23, 1993, of unspecified natural causes in a
rental apartment in San Luis, Arizona. His birthday, March 31, is celebrated in
California as a state holiday. All state government offices, community colleges,
and libraries are closed, except for K-12 schools. Texas also recognizes the
day, and it is an optional holiday in Arizona and Colorado.
The California cities of Modesto, Sacramento, San Diego, Berkeley, and San
Jose, California have renamed parks after him, and in Amarillo, Texas a bowling
alley has been renamed in his memory. In Los Angeles, César E. Chávez Avenue,
originally named Brooklyn Avenue, extends from Sunset Boulevard and runs through
East Los Angeles and Monterey Park. In San Francisco, César Chávez Street,
originally named Army Street, is named in his memory. Fresno named an adult
school, where a majority percent of students' parents or themselves are, or have
been, field workers, after Chávez. In Austin, Texas, one of the main central
thoroughfares was changed to César Chávez Boulevard. In Ogden, Utah, a
four-block section of 30th Street was renamed Cesar Chavez Street. In Oakland,
there is a library named after him and his birthday, March 31, is a district
holiday in remembrance of him. In 2003, the United States Postal Service honored
him with a postage stamp.
In 2005, a César Chávez commemorative meeting was held in San Antonio,
honoring his work on behalf of immigrant farmworkers and other immigrants. In
Santa Fe, New Mexico and Madison, Wisconsin there are elementary schools named
after him in his honor. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the business loop of I-196
Highway is named "Cesar E Chavez Blvd." The (AFSC) American Friends Service
Committee nominated him three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On December 6, 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady
Maria Shriver inducted César Chávez into the California Hall of Fame located at
The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts.
César Chávez's eldest son, Fernándo Chávez, and grandson, Anthony Chávez,
each tour the country, speaking about his legacy.
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