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Chavez, Cesar (1927-1993)

Chavez, Cesar (1927-1993)

Rising from the status of a migrant worker toiling in the agricultural fields of Yuma, Arizona, to the leader of America's first successful farm worker's union, Cesar Chavez was once described by Robert F. Kennedy as "one of the heroic figures of our time." Although by nature a meek and humble man known more for his leadership abilities than his public speaking talents, Chavez appealed to the conscience of America in the 1970s by convincing seventeen million people to boycott the sale of table grapes for five consecutive years. Chavez's United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) spearheaded the drive for economic and social justice for Mexican and Mexican American farm workers. Lending their support for this cause was a wide cross section of Americans, including college students, politicians, priests, nuns, rabbis, protestant ministers, unionists, and writers. By forming one of the first unions to fight for the rights of Mexican Americans, Chavez became an important symbol of the Chicano movement.

It would be a vast understatement to say that Chavez rose from humble beginnings. Born in 1927, Chavez spent his early years on his family's small farm near Yuma. When his parents lost their land during the Great Depression, they moved to California to work in the fields as migrant workers. Young Chavez joined his parents to help harvest carrots, cotton, and grapes under the searing California sun. The Chavez family led a nomadic life, moving so often in search of migrant work that Cesar attended more than thirty elementary schools, many of which were segregated. By seventh grade, Cesar dropped out of school to work in the fields full time.

Following service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Chavez moved to Delano, California, with his wife Helen Fabela. It was in Delano that Chavez made the decision to take an active role in improving the dire working conditions of migrant workers. In 1952, Chavez became a member of the Community Service Organization, which at the time was organizing Mexican Americans into a coalition designed to confront discrimination in American society. Chavez's job was to register Mexican Americans in San Jose to vote, as well as serve as their liaison to immigration officials, welfare boards, and the police.

It was in the early 1960s, however, that Chavez began working exclusively to ameliorate the economic and labor exploitation of Mexican American farm workers. He formed the Farm Workers Association in 1962, which later became the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). By 1965, 1,700 families had joined the NFWA, and during that same year the organization had convinced two major California growers to raise the wages of migrant workers. After the NFWA merged with an organization of Filipino workers to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), the UFWOC in 1966 launched a campaign picketing grape growers in Delano who paid low wages. This campaign, which nationally became known as La Huelga (The Strike), proved to be the defining moment in Chavez's work as a labor activist. The highly publicized five-year strike against grape growers in the San Joaquin, Imperial, and Coachella valleys raised America's consciousness about the conditions of migrant workers and transformed Chavez into a national symbol of civil disobedience. By holding hunger strikes, marches, and sit-ins, as well as having himself arrested in order to gain attention to his cause, Chavez led a boycott that cost California grape growers millions of dollars. In 1970, the growers agreed to grant rights to migrant workers and raised their minimum wage.

La Huelga was the first of many successful boycotts that Chavez organized on behalf of grape and lettuce pickers, and he also fought for the civil rights of African Americans, women, gays, and lesbians. Although membership in the UFWOC eventually waned, Chavez remained a beloved figure in the Mexican American community and nationally represented the quest for fairness and equality for all people. When Chavez died on April 23, 1993, at the age of sixty-six, expressions of bereavement were received from a host of national and international leaders, and a front-page obituary was published in the New York Times.

—Dennis Russell

Further Reading:

Dunne, John Gregory. Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967.

Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1997.

Levy, Jacques. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York, W. W. Norton, 1975.

London, Joan, and Henry Anderson. So Shall Ye Reap: The Story of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers' Movement. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1970.

Matthiessen, Peter. Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. New York, Dell Publishing Co., 1969.

Taylor, Ronald B. Chavez and the Farm Workers. Boston, Beacon Press, 1975.

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