Chávez, Cé

views updated May 23 2018

César Chávez: 1927-1993: Labor leader

From his birth into brutal poverty as the son of Mexican immigrants, César Estrada Chávez dedicated his life to improving the lot of migrant farm workers in the United States. Through his courage and devotion to "La Causa," he created the first union to successfully represent the interest of the farm laborers who had for generations been exploited because of poverty, ignorance, and racism. Although his first strike, in 1965 against California grape growers, was unsuccessful in its immediate aims, Chávez drew national attention to the abysmal living and working conditions endured by many migrant workers in Arizona, Texas, Florida, and California. In his role as the founder of the United Farm Workers labor union, Chávez marshaled grassroots support, and by the 1970s had motivated Americans from all walks of life to join in protests and boycotts in support of agricultural workers. After his union joined the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and he became executive director, Chávez broadened his support to environmental hazards in the workplace. His tireless efforts during the mid-twentieth century also made Chávez one of the first national role models for Hispanic Americans, who had until then been invisible to the U.S. media.

Grew Up In Poverty

"A few men and women have engraved their names in the annals of change through nonviolence," Arthur Jones wrote in an eulogy of Chávez published in the National Catholic Reporter, "but none have experienced the grinding childhood poverty that Chávez did." Indeed, Chávez's ability to represent the interests of migrant workers so effectively was a direct result of his early life. Born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927, his earliest memories coincided with the Great Depression where, as one of five children born to farmers Librado and Juana Chávez, he experienced incredible privation. His parents, whose families had immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the wake of the country's political upheaval during the first decades of the 20th century, ran a small farm near Yuma until the Depression forced them out of business.

When Chávez was ten the bank foreclosed on his father, forcing the Chávez family to travel from farm to farm during the harvest season in search of work. In this manner they arrived in California in 1939, competing for back-breaking, low-paying jobs with thousands of other men, women, and children who lived in their cars or found temporary shelter in the tin shacks characteristic of migrant labor camps. Growing up in this type of lifeworking sometimes for as little as eight cents an hour and surviving the winter with no shoes and barely enough to eatthe Chávez children did not receive a regular education, and by César's recollection, he attended over 35 different segregated schools before abandoning his education after the seventh grade to work full-time. However, his parents gave him a firm grounding in the Catholic faith, which helped him endure and overcome the circumstances of his childhood.

At a Glance . . .

Born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona; died April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona; married; eight children. Education: Attended public schools until age 12. Religion: Roman Catholic. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1944-45.

Career: Community Service Organization, field operative, then state director, 1952-62; National Farm Workers Association (later United Farm Workers Operations Committee), founder and director, 1962-93.

In 1939 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began to send union organizers out into the fields near San Jose, California, where Chávez and his family worked, in an attempt to organize the region's dried-fruit industry workers. Librado Chávez and his brother risked their jobs and courageously joined other workers in picket lines. Although the CIO's efforts ultimately failed, Librado's belief in the power of workers banding together to improve their lot inspired his son, who joined the National Agricultural Workers Union in 1946. Because of the itinerant habits, grueling hours, and fear of reprisals endured by migrant workers, this union joined with several other agricultural labor unions in unsuccessful efforts to achieve solidarity among farm workers.

During World War II Chávez joined the U.S. Navy and spent two years in the service. In 1945 he returned to California and to his life as a migrant worker. Three years later, at age 21, he married Helen Fabela, with whom he had eight children. Determined to break with his migrant past, Chávez put down roots in Delano and worked at local farms.

Risked Life Savings to Form Union

As a farm worker with a wife and growing family, Chávez's frustration over his treatment as a farm worker and the legacy he would leave his children inspired him to take up the union cause again. Through Catholic Father Donald McDonnell, Chávez met union recruiter Fred Ross in 1952. This meeting sparked his active involvement in organized labor and his ten-year work on behalf of the Community Service Organization (CSO). Because he was himself a field worker, Chávez was effective in setting up local chapters of the CSO in ways that previous union organizerssuch as politicians, clergymen, and intellectualshad not been able to do. Working to build rural CSO membership through voter registration drives and assisting the organization's Mexican and Mexican-American members with immigration- and welfare-related issues, Chávez rose in the organization to the position of statewide director. Still convinced that unionization was the best way to solve the problems of CSO members, Chávez ultimately left his post in 1962 after the CSO balked at supporting a farm workers union. Risking $900 of his own money, he formed the Farm Workers Association (FWA), basing the fledgling organization in his home in Delano, California.

Chávez traveled from farm to farm throughout the rich agricultural valleys of southern California, working to convince migrant workers to join the FWA. A passionate and convincing speaker, he saw membership grow and, with the support of local Catholic priests and civil rights lawyers, he was soon able to assist workers in labor negotiations with growers in the fertile Imperial and San Joaquin valleys. Within three years FWA membership was almost 2,000; the union was now in a position to negotiate for wage increases among the region's smaller growers. In the fall of 1965 the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC)a small arm of the AFL-CIO led by Larry Itliang that represented the many Filipino grape pickers who had entered California beginning in the 1930swent on strike against growers in Delano. They asked Chávez and his union to join them in solidarity. While Chávez knew his small union could not effectively strike on its own, it could be effective in helping the AWOC. His call to FWA members to strike for "La Causa" marked a pivotal point in union history.

Inspired by his own strong Catholic principles as well as the nonviolence practiced by leaders such as India's Mahatmas Gandhi and black civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Chávez and AWOC leaders used picket lines, a nationwide consumer boycott, and protest rallies as weapons in their economic war against agricultural interests. An outdoor mass or small prayer session preceded union marches and strike activity. In the spring of 1967, Chávez led a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento. By the time he and the 65 original farm workers reached Sacramento 25 days later, they had been joined by 10,000 supporters and attracted the attention of Americans all across the nation. Catching the momentum of the social protest movement that had been fueled by both the civil rights movement and disputes over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Chávez's cause brought together blue collar workers and college students, Blacks and Latinos, Catholics and Jews, and even prompted participation from America's middle class. In addition, radicalized young people of the barrios viewed Chávez and his cause as a crusade for La Razethe Hispanic race.

In 1966, mid-strike, the FWA merged with the AFLCIO to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). With the power of the nation's largest labor organization behind him, Chávez was able to negotiate labor agreements with Gallo and Christian Bros. wineries, acquiring better wages, pension and medical benefits, and better living conditions for those who worked the fields. Unfortunately, more powerful concerns with the money to ride out the effects of the strike refused to come to the bargaining table. In early 1968 Chávez spearheaded a new boycott, this time levied at the prime resisters: table grape growersgrowers who produced 90% of the edible grapes consumed in the United States. Grape sales dropped 12% nationwide as a result.

In 1969, as "La huelga"the strikeentered its fourth year and violence began to escalate, California's Catholic bishops attempted to aid in the negotiations through their ad hoc Committee on Farm Labor, with Msgr. Cardinal Roger Mahony attending negotiations between the two parties. Other supporters included U.S. congressmen Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and the leadership of both the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO. Due to Chávez's ability to marshal members in highly visible ways, the strike received extensive coverage by the national press, with many publications pressing for a resolution in favor of the workers.

Began Hunger Strike

Mirroring Gandhi and his promotion of passive resistance, in the midst of the boycott, Chávez embarked upon 25 days of fasting as a way to publicize his boycott around the country, and also staged protest marches as far away as Texas and other agriculture-based states that employed migrant labor. In July of 1970, 26 growers signed agreements with the UFWOC, and within a few months over 80% of the table growers had entered into union contracts with their workers, establishing equitable wages and improving living conditions. Crediting his fast for promoting the UFWOC's final negotiations, Chávez repeated the technique in later union efforts, saying in the National Catholic Reporter: "I am convinced that the truest act of courage is to sacrifice ourselves in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice."

With its first battle won, in 1970 the UFWOC focused its attention on iceberg lettuce growers in Arizona and Salinas, California, where lettuce pickers worked in unreasonable conditions for little money. Despite the collusion between growers, large corporations, and members of the Teamsters Unionthen expelled from the AFL-CIO and acting independentlyto derail UFWOC efforts, Chávez's initiation of a strike and nationwide boycott of California lettuce in September of 1970 ultimately brought the growers to the tableand left Chávez briefly jailed in violation of a court order against such action.

The publicity surrounding Chávez's arrest illustrated to the nation the high-pressure tactics used by growers who allied with the Teamsters as a way to undermine the efforts of UFWOC operators. One result of his arrest was the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which created the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. From then on union organizers had access to the field, and workers had the right to a secret ballot in union elections. Within two years the UFWOC had been legitimized; it had contracts with 147 growers and represented 50,000 farm workers.

Pressured by Larger Labor Union

Although they were able to get initial contracts with major agricultural concerns, the UFWOC had difficulty in renewing them. Throughout the 1970s, as these labor contracts came up for renewal, the Teamsters Unionthen the largest labor union in the countrycontinued to bypass Chávez and his group and negotiate directly with California's largest growers. Ultimately, the AFL-CIO interceded and in 1979 the Teamsters agreed to cease its efforts to organize field hands; instead, it focused on canners, packers and truck drivers. By the early 1980s, at its peak, the UFWOC counted close to 100,000 agricultural workers among its members.

In 1982, after the governorship of the state of California passed into new hands, the relationship between labor and government became less amicable. As a result, unions were no longer given input into legislation regarding labor matters, the pro-labor provisions of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act were eradicated through legislative means, and competition between the AFL-CIO, Chávez's UFWOC, and other small unions became more intense. It was clear to Chávez that his union had lost its ability to enact positively on the lives of its members, and a declining membership base confirmed his assessment. In addition, his primary activitiesboycotts, protest marches, and negotiationswere reactive, while union growth required a membership base gained only through converts in the fields.

Dissent, Changing Times Diminished Union Power

Looking for a way in which he could continue to make a difference in the lives of agricultural workers, Chávez focused on health issues: the consequences of pesticide exposure on those people working in the fields. A four-year boycott of California-grown table grapes and a 36-day fast by Chávez in 1988 both helped focus national attention on irresponsible pesticide use, but times had changed. While some environmentalists supported the UFWOC's efforts, organizations such as the Sierra Club refused. The generation that had supported Chávez and his efforts during the 1970s was older and less liberal-minded now, and the boycott was not powerful enough to enact the changes Chávez desired. In addition, the UFWOC was increasingly embroiled in legislative issues, while its power struggle with the Teamsters had also drained its political energies. By the late 1980s union membership had fallen to 20,000.

Chávez continued to dedicate himself to La Causa for the remainder of his life. He died near the Arizona town where he was born, on April 23, 1993, at age sixty-six. As a testimony to the effects of his efforts, over 30,000 mourners joined his four-mile funeral procession six days later, many viewing him as "a national metaphor of justice, humanity, equality, and freedom," according to Richard A. García in Pacific Historical Review. Pope John Paul II, President Bill Clinton, and the president of Mexico also sent representatives to honor Chávez, who had become a symbol of not only the accomplishments of organized labor but also of Mexican Americans.

During the decade following Chávez's death, his efforts continued to be recognized. The César E. Chávez Foundation, founded in 1993 with the help of the Chávez family, is dedicated to promoting his life and the spirit of La Causa. 1999 saw the Texas House of Representatives pass a bill honoring Chávez and establishing March 31st (his birthday) as a state holiday. In 2001 the state of California honored him by marking March 30th as the annual César E. Chávez Day, the first celebration of which brought the state's governor, Cardinal Mahony, Ethel Kennedy, and other notables together in the labor leader's memory. In a New Yorker eulogy, novelist Peter Matthiessen wrote of Chávez: "Self sacrifice lay at the very heart of the devotion he inspired, and gave dignity and hope not only to farmworkers but to every one of the Chicano people, who saw for themselves what one brave man, indifferent to his own health and welfare, could accomplish."



Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement, Harcourt, Brace, 1997.

Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia, César Chávez: A Life of Struggle and Sacrifice, Norman, 1995.

Kanellos, Nicolás, editor, Hispanic-American Almanac, Gale, 1993.

Levy, Jacques E., César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa, W. W. Norton, 1975.

Meister, Dick, and Anne Loftis, A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers, 1977.

Legends in Their Own Time, Prentice-Hall, 1994.

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


America, May 22, 1993, p. 4.

Christian Century, May 12, 1993, pp. 513-14.

Commonweal, June 4, 1993.

Nation, July 26-August 2, 1993, pp. 130-35.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1993, pp. 5-7, 28.

New Republic, November 25, 1985.

Newsweek, May 3, 1993; July 24, 2000.

New Yorker, May 17, 1993, p. 82.

Pacific Historical Review, February 1, 1999; May, 1994.

People, September 5, 1988, p. 52.

PR Newswire, March 30, 2001.

Progressive, July 1992, p. 14.

Time, July 4, 1969, pp. 16-22; May 3, 1993.

P. L. Shelton

Chávez, César

views updated May 14 2018

Chávez, César 1927-1993


Of Mexican American ancestry, César Estrada Chávez was born in Yuma, Arizona, with deep roots in the American Southwest. He was the second-born child of Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada, whose families were displaced from their land, much like many other Mexicans who were tricked by attorneys, had their loans rejected because others coveted their land, or lost their land as a result of owing back taxes. On August 29, 1937, the Arizona state government took possession of the Chávez familys land, and later auctioned it off to the bank president who had refused the elder Chávez a loan to reclaim his property (La Botz 2006, p. 7; see also Montejano 1987 for a discussion of land displacement). The loss of their land forced the family to work in the agricultural fields of Arizona, and later in Californias San Joaquin Valley, beginning when César was just a child of ten. As migrants, the family struggled under the most difficult of conditions, including grossly substandard pay. Despite having only an eighth-grade education, Chávez served in the Navy during World War II (1939-1945). After two years of service, he returned to grueling agricultural work; there was not much else available for a man who lacked a formal education and whose employment options were limited by racism.

Chávezs organizing career began as a result of a stint with the Community Services Organization (CSO), where he worked under the guidance of Fred Ross and Father Donald McDonnell in San José, California. After two years of struggle with CSOs board, who refused to support many of his proposals, Chávez set out on his own to organize the agricultural workers union, using strategies he developed through his work with CSO, and guided by insights gained from personal experience of oppressive work conditions. Chávez patiently and systematically devised nonviolent strategies, such as the secondary boycott, which targeted specific businesses that bought goods from growers who refused to negotiate with or recognize the union. He also used fasting to highlight the shameful conditions under which farmworkers labored.

Chávez forged alliances with Filipinos and other workers of color and their families to organize the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which later became the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA). His ability to work in coalition with people of other faiths and political persuasions created lifelong partnerships, including with Gilbert Padilla and Dolores Huerta, who like him had been influenced by the pragmatic philosophy of Saul Alinskys Industrial Areas Foundation. Together the three organized the first table boycott and negotiated a contract with the Schenely Corporation, signed on April 7, 1966. This agreement marked the success of a national campaign that was carried out by the farmworkers themselves. Their effort also pointed the way toward the formation of national alliances with Democratic and liberal politicians, and drew the support of the United Auto Workers Union, as well as competition from the Teamsters Union, after the Schenely Corporation brought Teamsters to the negotiating table. Later, the Teamsters would vie for contracts against the UFW.

Through his life work, Chávez created a revolution in agriculture and inspired the birth of the Chicano civil rights movement. His tireless support of American agricultural workers made him oppose governmental agreements such as the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican workers to work in U.S. fields, and led him to fight against the use of undocumented workers, because they weakened unionization and adversely impacted the wages of Mexican Americans. Chávez was harshly criticized for these positions and lost the support of those who believe in workers rights regardless of origin, especially when he later sided with conservatives who pushed for immigration restrictions in the 1980s. Still, Chávez maintained enough support to achieve the first agricultural workers law in a nation that had not allowed the unionization of farmworkers in the past. This was the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 1975, which established the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to oversee elections and to settle appeals.

Because of Chávezs willingness to confront racism and poverty in the agricultural fields, conditions for workers improved. The fruits of his labor included the eradication of the dreaded short hoe, the availability of portable toilets, the accessibility of drinking water, the creation of a hiring hall, the foundation of a service center and health clinic, and improvement of wages and benefits. A believer in nonviolence, Chávez continued to use legal means in his pursuit of social justice until the end. He passed away in Yuma, Arizona, working to fight a lawsuit against the UFW brought by Bruce Church Incorporated, the largest producer of lettuce and vegetables in Salinas, California. This was perceived as a move to destroy an already weak union; Church was suing the UFWA for millions of dollars in damages resulting from the 1980s lettuce boycott. In death, Chávez has become an icon, as a result of his activism and commitment to the struggle for farmworkers rights and social justice, a commitment he selflessly carried out to the end as he sought to improve the lives of those who feed the nation. For his extraordinary efforts and to mark the legacy of his accomplishments and his service to humanity, President Bill Clinton awarded Chávez with a posthumous Medal of Freedom in 1994. As Paul Chávez remarked in the San Jose Mercury News, when history writes its final chapter, [César Chávez] will be remembered as a man who lived by his principles and who wasnt afraid of taking uncomfortable positions (1993, p. 1A).

SEE ALSO Agricultural Industry; Migrant Labor


Acuña, Rodolfo. 2004. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman.

Chávez, Paul. 1993. A Warrior for Justice Mourned Nationwide. San Jose Mercury News (April 24): 1A.

Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia. 1995. César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

La Botz, Dan. 2006. César Chávez and La Causa. New York: Pearson Longman.

Levy, Jacques E. 1975. César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York: Norton.

Matthiessen, Peter. 1969. Sal Si Puedes: César Chávez and the New American Revolution. New York: Random House.

Méndez-Negrete, Josephine. 1994. We Remember César Chávez: A Catalyst for Change. San José Studies 20 (2): 71-83.

Montejano, David. 1987. Mexicans and Anglos in the Making of Texas, 1937-1986. Austin: University of Texas Press.

United Farm Workers Web site. The Story of Cesar Chavez.

Josephine Méndez-Negrete

Chávez, César

views updated May 21 2018

15: César Chávez

Complete text of "An Open Letter to the Grape Industry"

   Originally written in 1969.

   Reprinted from The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement, 1997.

What became known as "La causa" ("the cause") officially began in September of 1962 when the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) was organized at a convention of about 300 farm workers led by César Chávez (1927–1993). Chávez had been head of die Community Services Organization (CSO), a social services group dedicated to helping Hispanic Americans. He resigned from the CSO in 1962 to focus specifically on helping die large California community of Mexican American farm workers improve their working conditions and wages. Chávez traveled around California speaking to workers about the NFWA. Dolores Huerta worked with Chávez to start the union. A teacher serving California farm-worker communities, Huerta became a labor activist after witnessing the dire poverty of children of migrant workers.

"We know that our cause is just, that history is a story of social revolution, and that the poor shall inherit the land."

The NFWA held its first strike in the spring of 1965 when a company that grew roses failed to honor a pay raise it had promised to its rose grafters. (Rose grafters are skilled workers who take part of a plant and attach it surgically to die root or stem of another plant, creating a stronger plant with more robust blossoms.) When the demands of the strikers were met after only four days, NFWA membership began to swell. In September of 1965, Filipino American grape pickers went on strike for better wages, and the NFWA voted to join them. The grape pickers strike would last for nearly five years, and Chávez would emerge as a popular national figure for labor reform.

Césario Estrada Chávez was born in Yuma, Arizona, the second of five children in a family that owned a small farm and ran a country store. The Chávez family lost its farm and store in 1937 during the Great Depression (1929–41), a period of prolonged drought and poor economic conditions. The family headed for California, joining hundreds of thousands of Americans as migrant workers, who traveled from farm to farm for work picking whatever crop was ripe. Like other migrants, the Chávez family had no permanent housing.

After serving in the military during World War II (1939–45), Chávez married Helen Fabela in 1948. The couple would have eight children. They lived in a poor and overcrowded San Jose, California, neighborhood. There, Chávez met Father Donald McDonnell, a Catholic priest who worked closely with neighborhood residents to help them improve their lives. McDonnell encouraged Chávez to join the Community Services Organization (CSO). Chávez also began reading books by and about such reform leaders as St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), a saint who had championed justice and respect for nature as well as an end to violence, war, poverty, and oppression. He also became familiar with the teachings of Hindu nationalist and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), who helped India gain freedom from Great Britain through nonviolent means.

When Chávez formed the union, he applied Gandhi's strategy of nonviolent resistance. The strategy was also being used at the same time by the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) in the African American civil rights movement.

Fighting on behalf of grape workers

The California grape workers strike that began in 1965 quickly spread to more than thirty vineyards and involved thousands of striking workers. Replacement workers—often called "scab laborers"—were brought in from Mexico by farm owners while strikers faced growing hostility and violence. Chávez pleaded with strikers to remain nonviolent, even though many of them were being illegally arrested. Meanwhile, he drummed up support for the strike at universities, churches, and union meetings. He organized a boycott of grapes and wine, and he led a 300—mile protest march that ended in Sacramento, California, the state capital. There, on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1966, Chávez announced that a major grape grower would sign a contract with the strikers.

Meanwhile, strikes against other grape growers continued. The grape and wine boycott started by Chávez spread across the country, as students and labor union members picketed stores to discourage people from buying grapes grown in California. Millions of Americans honored the boycott. After some fights took place on picket lines and a student was shot, Chávez declared he would stop eating, or fast, until the violence ceased. His fast lasted for twenty-five days, during which time Chávez lost thirty-five pounds. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968), who became a candidate for U.S. president later that year, joined Chávez and thousands of supporters on March 10, 1968, to celebrate a Catholic Mass marking the end of the fast.

Woody Guthrie: Migrant Songwriter

After losing their farm and store in 1937 when César Chávez was ten, the Chávez family joined hundreds of thousands of migrant farm laborers looking for work in California. The whole family worked fourteen hours a day and slept in metal or tar paper shacks. Because the family moved so often, the children rarely stayed long in one school. By the time he finished eighth grade, Chávez had attended thirty-seven different schools.

Among the many who traveled to California for work during the period was folksinger Woody Guthrie (1912–1967). Guthrie had formed a band, The Corn Cob Trio, in Oklahoma, but the Great Dust Storm that hit the Great Plains in the west central region of the United States in 1935 made it impossible for him to support his family. Guthrie was part of the mass migration of people leaving the "dust bowl"—drought-plagued farms where the dirt was so dry it was easily swept away by the wind. More than 300,000 people migrated west in search of opportunities during the 1930s. Guthrie hitchhiked, rode freight trains, and even walked to California, where he experienced scorn and antagonism by residents opposed to the arrival of countless numbers of outsiders.

Through his songs, Guthrie became an activist for labor. On his guitar he had scrawled the words "This machine kills fascists" to emphasize how art can be an instrument for social justice. A fascist is another word for tyrant or dictator.

On January 29,1948, a chartered plane filled with Mexican farm workers who were going to be removed from the country, or deported, crashed in Los Gatos Canyon in California. All twenty-eight passengers died. Guthrie was outraged that radio reports of the crash referred to them only as deportees and did not honor them by using their names. He wrote the song "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)" to express his anger. In the song, as noted on the Woody Guthrie Web Site, he says farewell to Juan and Rosalita. Then he sings: "You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane, / All they will call you will be 'deportees.'"

One of Guthrie's most famous folk songs is "This Land Is Your Land." In the lyrics, he notes how the land was meant for all to share when he states: "This land was made for you and me." Some of the recordings of this song, however, do not contain all of the verses. One of the verses that is sometimes skipped is highly political in nature. In the verse, Guthrie talks about the inequalities he has witnessed between the rich and poor. He writes about seeing the poor and unemployed lined up at a relief office in the shadow of a church. (During the Great Depression, many people lost their jobs and sought help through relief agencies set up by the government, churches, and other groups.) Seeing the people seeking relief at the agency, Guthrie observes: "As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?"

As the strike entered its fourth year in 1969 and more violence occurred, Chávez was accused of promoting violence by E. L. Barr, Jr., leader of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, an organization of large farm owners. Chávez responded with an "open letter"—a letter addressed to an individual but intended for public reading. In the letter, Chávez denied the accusation of having encouraged violence, explained his actions, and described the philosophy of the organization.

Things to remember while reading "An Open Letter to the Grape Industry":

  • Chávez consistently uses the word "moral" to describe the strike and to show that it is a moral cause. He bluntly states that either he or his accuser, E. L. Barr Jr., president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, is guilty of an immoral act: Chávez is guilty if he has promoted violence, or Barr is guilty if his accusation that Chávez encouraged violence is untrue.
  • To emphasize his strategy of nonviolent resistance, Chávez makes references to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom led reform movements based on nonviolent action.
  • Chávez is taking the opportunity of having been accused of supporting violence to spread information about his cause. As an open letter, the piece was available for publication in any newspaper or magazine.

"An Open Letter to the Grape Industry"

E. L. Barr, Jr., President

California Grape & Tree Fruit League

Dear Mr. Barr,

I am sad to hear about your accusations in the press that our union movement and table grape boycott has been successful because we have used violence and terror tactics. If what you say is true, I have been a failure and should withdraw from the struggle. But you are left with the awesome moral responsibility, before God and man, to come forward with whatever information you have so that corrective action can begin at once.

If for any reason you fail to come forth to substantiate [prove] your charges then you must be held responsible for committing violence against us, albeit violence of the tongue. I am convinced that you as a human being did not mean what you said but rather acted hastily under pressure from the public relations firm that has been hired to try to counteract the tremendous moral force of our movement. How many times we ourselves have felt the need to lash out in anger and bitterness.

Today on Good Friday, 1969, we remember the life and sacrifice of Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave himself totally to the nonviolent struggle for peace and justice. In his letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King describes better than I could our hopes for the strike and boycott: "Injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured." For our part, I admit that we have seized upon every tactic and strategy consistent with the morality of our cause to expose that injustice and thus to heighten the sensitivity of the American conscience so that farmworkers will have without bloodshed their own union and the dignity of bargaining with their agribusiness employers.

By lying about the nature of our movement, Mr. Barr, you are working against nonviolent social change. Unwittingly perhaps, you may unleash that other force that our union by discipline and deed, censure [criticism] and education has sought to avoid, that panacean [cure-all] short cut: that senseless violence that honors no color, class, or neighborhood.

YOU MUST understand, I must make you understand, that our membership—and the hopes and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of the poor and dispossessed that have been raised on our account—are, above all, human beings, no better no worse than any other cross section of human society; we are not saints because we are poor but by the same measure neither are we immoral. We are men and women who have suffered and endured much and not only because of our abject [horrible] poverty but because we have been kept poor. The color of our skins, the languages of our cultural and native origins, the lack of formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process, the numbers of our slain in recent wars—all these burdens generation after generation have sought to demoralize us, to break our human spirit. But God knows we are not beasts of burden, we are not agricultural implements [tools] or rented slaves, we are men. And mark this well, Mr. Barr, we are men locked in a death struggle against man's inhumanity to man in the industry that you represent. And this struggle itself gives meaning to our life and ennobles our dying.

As your industry has experienced, our strikers here in Delano [a town in California] and those who represent us throughout the world are well trained for this struggle. They have been under the gun, they have been kicked and beaten and herded by dogs, they have been cursed and ridiculed, they have been stripped and chained and jailed, they have been sprayed with the poisons used in the vineyards. They have been taught not to lie down and die or to flee in shame, but to resist with every ounce of human endurance and spirit. To resist not with retaliation in kind but to overcome with love and compassion, with ingenuity [resourcefulness] and creativity, with hard work and longer hours, with stamina and patient tenacity [persistence], with truth and public appeal, with friends and allies, with mobility and discipline, with politics and law, and with prayer and fasting. They were not trained in a month or even a year; after all, this new harvest season will mark our fourth full year of strike and even now we continue to plan and prepare for the years to come. Time accomplishes for the poor what money does for the rich.

This is not to pretend that we have everywhere been successful enough or that we have not made mistakes. And while we do not belittle or underestimate our adversaries, for they are the rich and powerful and possess the land, we are not afraid nor do we cringe from the confrontation. We welcome it! We have planned for it. We know that our cause is just, that history is a story of social revolution, and that the poor shall inherit the land.

Once again, I appeal to you as the representative of your industry and as a man. I ask you to recognize and bargain with our union before the economic pressure of the boycott and strike take an irrevocable toll; but if not, I ask you to at least sit down with us to discuss the safeguards necessary to keep our historical struggle free of violence. I make this appeal because as one of the leaders of our nonviolent movement, I know and accept my responsibility for preventing, if possible, the destruction of human life and property.

For these reasons and knowing of [Mahatma] Gandhi's admonition [warning] that fasting is the last resort in place of the sword, during a most critical time in our movement last February, 1968, I undertook a 25—day fast. I repeat to you the principle enunciated [explained] to the membership at the start of the fast: if to build our union required the deliberate taking of life, either the life of a grower or his child, or the life of a farmworker or his child, then I choose not to see the union built.

MR. BARR, let me be painfully honest with you. You must understand these things. We advocate militant nonviolence as our means for social revolution and to achieve justice for our people, but we are not blind or deaf to the desperate and moody winds of human frustration, impatience, and rage that blow among us. Gandhi himself admitted that if his only choices were cowardice or violence, he would choose violence. Men are not angels and the time and tides wait for no man. Precisely because of these powerful human emotions, we have tried to involve masses of people in their own struggle. 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.

This letter does not express all that is in my heart, Mr. Barr. But if it says nothing else, it says that we do not hate you 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 a determined nonviolent struggle carried on by those masses of farmworkers who intend to be free and human.

    Sincerely yours,



What happened next …

The grape boycott organized by Chávez finally succeeded in convincing growers to sign labor contracts with the farm workers in July of 1970. Chávez began focusing on organizing more farm workers, but a group of lettuce growers signed contracts with the powerful Teamsters Union to negotiate with their workers. Stating that neither the contracts nor representation by the Teamsters Union were in the best interests of farm workers, Chávez urged a boycott of lettuce. Several lettuce growers eventually signed with Chávez's union, which became known as the United Farm Workers (UFW).

Another grape boycott was called in 1973. The three-year contract between growers and laborers signed in 1970 had ended, and growers signed new contracts with the Teamsters Union. The new contract did not include several provisions favorable to workers that were part of the 1970 contract, including a procedure through which workers could file grievances, or complaints, against their employers and another that protected workers from the pesticides, or poisons, sprayed on crops. Over the next four years, the grape boycott was honored by millions of Americans. Growers, meanwhile, had picketers arrested and jailed (among them Chávez's daughter Linda), and violence against picketers was started on several occasions by members of the Teamsters Union. In 1977 Chávez reached an agreement with Teamsters officials that recognized the UFW as the primary organization representing farm workers.

Meanwhile, Chávez had helped win passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (1975) in California. The most significant law ever passed in the United States to help farm workers, the act created a board to oversee labor practices and union elections on farms and guaranteed the right of workers to organize and bargain as a group. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act had mixed results, especially during the 1980s when California government officials enacted measures more favorable for farm owners and made enforcing the act more difficult.

Chávez remained active in UFW causes and took a special interest in fighting the use of pesticides and promoting safeguards to protect workers. In 1991 he received Mexico's highest honor, the Aguila Azteca (The Aztec Eagle). Chávez died in Yuma, Arizona, on April 23, 1993. A funeral service in Delano, California, was attended by thousands of people. In 1994 U.S. President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) posthumously awarded Chávez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Speaking of Chávez, the president said, as noted on the UFW Web site: "The farm workers who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency pinned their hopes on this remark-able man, who, with faith and discipline, with soft-spoken humility and amazing inner strength, led a very courageous life."

The Grapes of Wrath

Three decades before César Chávez formed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), American novelist John Steinbeck (1902–1968) had dramatized the conflicts between union organizers and large landowners in his book In Dubious Battle (1935). In the novel, migrant workers are pitted against two classes of landowners when a small orchard owner is pressured by large-scale farm representatives to lower wages. A strike by migrant workers follows, and violence erupts. Both the union leaders and the farm representatives use excessive claims and sensational symbols for their causes.

Steinbeck was raised in the lush Salinas Valley of California and witnessed great changes in farming. In a 1936 article he wrote for the San Francisco News, as documented in The Harvest Gypsies, he declared that "a complete revolution has taken place in California agriculture." Principle products of hay and cattle had been replaced by crops of fruits and vegetables, he noted, and the newer crops required much more equipment and labor. By 1936, he continued, the drought in the Midwest had left thousands of farm families poverty-stricken, using their remaining resources to drive to California in search of jobs. They arrived "so beaten and destitute that they have been willing at first to work under any conditions and for any wages offered." Their plight is dramatized in Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939.

The Grapes of Wrath depicts the effect that the prolonged drought had on farmers of the Midwest, many of whom lost their land when they could not repay their debts. Rather than live in poverty, many were convinced to head to California by the promise of jobs. The novel follows the Joad family as they leave Oklahoma and arrive in California as part of an overabundant labor force. Tom Joad, the oldest son, and Jim Casy, a former preacher who joined the Joads on the trip, become involved in organized labor efforts. Amid many tragedies, part of the Joad clan endures, but Tom becomes a fugitive who must continually flee from authorities. Tom's farewell to his mother, whose strength has made her the family leader, underscores the frustrations felt by those who have lost their livelihood as farmers and encountered hostility in trying to find work with decent pay. Tom says in The Grapes of Wrath: "I been thinkin' about our people livin' like pigs, an' good rich Ian' layin' fallow [ready to be planted] or maybe one feller with a million acres, while a hunerd thousan' good farmers is starvin'."

Responding to his mother's question about where he will go and how she can find him, Tom Joad replies, "I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be ever'where—wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad—I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build—I'll be there, too."

In 2000 California established a state holiday to honor Chávez. On César Chávez Day, people come together to get involved in their communities, in honor of the labor leader. The holiday spread to other states, including Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.

In 2006 events surrounding César Chávez Day gave proof of the lasting significance of the labor leader. More than 500,000 people in Los Angeles, California, rallied in a peaceful demonstration to protest proposed immigration laws that would affect some 11 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States, many of whom were farm laborers. Many protesters wore red T-shirts displaying the UFW logo and carried red flags that read "Yes We Can!," the UFW motto, in Spanish and English.

On Sunday around 5,000 farm workers gathered for Catholic Mass in Los Angeles to celebrate the birthday of Chávez. On Monday, César Chávez Day, more than 1,000 students walked out of eight Los Angeles-area schools and began marching down streets. They chanted peacefully as they gathered to protest in downtown Los Angeles against new immigration legislation.

Did you know …

  • When Chávez formed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962, he avoided calling it a union because of a long history of failed attempts to create agricultural unions and the bitter memories of those workers who had been left without representation.
  • Voter registration efforts on the part of Chávez and his union helped Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy win a close victory in the California presidential primary in June of 1968. Chávez was repaying Kennedy for having brought more national attention to the grape pickers strike when he came to California to celebrate the end of Chávez's fast in March of that year. The California victory likely ensured that Kennedy would win the Democratic nomination for president, but Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles on the night of his victory.
  • E. L. Barr Jr., president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, to whom "An Open Letter to the Grape Industry" was addressed, never responded to the letter.

Consider the following …

  • Boycotts, a nonviolent means of protest, have been used for various causes as a message against unfair practices. Research the use of boycotts in labor, civil rights, and other movements. Write about their effectiveness and fairness in helping promote social change.
  • Research the conflicts between landowners and farm laborers during the 1930s and 1940s, 1960s and 1970s, and the early twenty-first century. Write about what ways the conflicts are similar and different.

For More Information


Etulain, Richard W. César Chávez: A Brief Biography with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002.

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

Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard Garcia. César Chávez: Triumph of the Spirit. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Houle, Michelle E., ed. César Chávez. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2003.

Schaefer, Lola M. César Chávez. Mankato, MN: Pebble Books, 1999.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Steinbeck, John. The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to "The Grapes of Wrath." Berkeley, CA: HeyDay Books, 1996.


The César E. Chávez Institute. San Francisco State University. (accessed on June 3, 2006).

"The Story of César Chávez." United Farm Workers. http://www.ufw.Org/ufw/_page.php?menu=research&inc=history/07.html (accessed on June 3, 2006).

Woody Guthrie Web Site. (accessed on June 3, 2006).

Good Friday: The Friday before Easter Sunday, when Christians recall the suffering and death of Jesus Christ (4? bce–29 ce).

Agribusiness: The business of farming.

Dispossessed: Those who have lost their homes, property, or possessions.

Beasts of burden: Animals like the ox that were domesticated as work animals.

Irrevocable: Unable to be returned to normal.

Chávez, César

views updated May 18 2018

César Chávez

Born March 31, 1927

Yuma, Arizona

Died April 23, 1993

San Luis, Arizona

Migrant workers union leader

"Our lives are all that really belong to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of people we are."

C ésar Chávez was the leader of California farm workers who for three decades helped them achieve improved wages and working conditions as well as a measure of dignity. He also persuaded millions of Americans who may never have been on a farm, or even in California, to stop buying table grapes as a way of supporting the cause of farm workers. Chávez made visible to mothers and fathers in grocery stores across America the symbolic fingerprints left on those grapes by the hands, brown hands mostly, that had picked them. Those brown hands belonged to migrant workers: the families who sometimes spent nights in tin storage sheds or broken-down cars parked under bridges, and spent days picking grapes and other crops for wages that barely sustained life. Chávez grew up traveling from farm to farm harvesting crops, barred from speaking his native Spanish in school, unable to stay in school past the eighth grade, barred from watching a movie in the "whites only" section of a California theater—but able to dream of social justice for those on the bottom of America's social heap: Mexican American migrant workers.

For thirty years, from 1962 until his death in 1993, Chávez was the leader of the United Farm Workers, an organization he formed to improve the lives of farm workers by demanding higher pay and safer working conditions. In this role, Chávez achieved a modest success: for a period in the 1970s and 1980s, his organization managed to force farm owners to pay higher wages and to refrain from using dangerous pesticides, or chemicals used to kill insects, on fields where people were handling the crops. In a larger sense, Chávez inspired the grape boycott, the act of refusing to buy grapes as a statement of support for the migrant workers whom Chávez represented. A public opinion poll in 1970 estimated that seventeen million people observed the boycott, a key to the union's success and an important time in the history of Latino workers in the United States. (Latinos are Spanish-speaking persons in North America descended from early Spanish explorers in the Western Hemisphere. A Latino may have any color skin, from white to brown to black.)

Growing up poor

César Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona, where his father, Librado, ran a store and worked on the nearby farm owned by César's grandfather. The farm had been owned by the Chávez family since the 1880s, when César's grandfather had immigrated to the United States from Mexico.

In 1937, the Chávez family had to leave their farm. A severe drought had ruined the crop, making it impossible for the family to pay taxes on their land; as a result, the government took possession of the property. The ten-year-old Chávez and his family were forced to join an army of thousands of others in Arizona and California who were in the same position: without land, without money, without jobs. The Chávez family and the other migrant workers traveled from farm to farm in Arizona and California, planting or harvesting crops. When one crop was harvested, the migrants moved to another farm, or another part of the state, to harvest another crop. (An army of migrant workers still moves from place to place in the United States, especially up and down the West Coast. They travel from California to Washington and back, planting or picking crops as the seasons advance, working for low wages, often living in their trucks or vans.)

For the children of migrant workers, attending school meant attending classes for awhile in one school, then moving to another school. Chávez later recalled attending about three dozen schools in just four years, until he finally dropped out of school for good in the eighth grade and began working full-time to help support his family.

Most migrant workers felt they had little to say about their jobs, their pay, or their working conditions. They needed money from week to week in order to live. They usually were not in one place long enough to think about organizing into unions, groups of workers who cooperate in demanding that their employers improve pay and other working conditions. In 1939, when Chávez was thirteen, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which represented workers in large manufacturing plants, tried to organize a union among agricultural workers in California who were part of the canned fruit industry. Chávez's father and uncle joined the effort. Although the CIO was not successful in organizing the field workers, Chávez learned from his father and uncle about unions and how they could help workers.

The Chávez family was eventually able to find steady agricultural work near San Jose, California, and move into a small rented house. It was a life of backbreaking labor, of bending over all day to chop weeds with short-handled hoes or picking fruits and vegetables. Life was a struggle to survive—a farm worker's pay was too low to offer hope of a better life.

During World War II (1939–45), Chávez joined the U.S. Navy and spent two years as a sailor in the eastern Pacific. Just before he entered the Navy, Chávez went to a movie in Delano, California, with some friends and sat in a section marked "whites." Told to move from their seats, they refused and the police were called to arrest them. For a teenager who had paid hard-earned money to sit in a seat and watch a movie, it was a humiliating experience that made a deep impression.

A career begins

When the war ended, Chávez left the Navy and resumed his life as a farm worker. In the autumn of 1947, he was harvesting grapes in Delano when workers went on strike (refused to work) in order to get farm owners to negotiate with a newly organized union of farm workers. It was not unusual at the time for local sheriffs, and even U.S. immigration agents, to cooperate with property owners in defeating efforts to organize unions.

During the grape pickers' strike of 1947, sheriff's deputies and federal Immigration Service agents raided the camp of striking workers time after time. The federal agents claimed to be looking for people who did not have a legal right to be in the United States. The effect of their presence was to intimidate the strikers, some of whom were illegal residents and others of whom had relatives from Mexico working in the United States. Two years later, cotton growers near Delano tried to cut the wages of workers, which also resulted in a strike. Both the grape and cotton strikes failed to achieve their objectives, and Chávez decided the fault lay with poor leadership and disorganization among the strike organizers.

Community organizing

In 1951, a Catholic priest, Father Donald McDonnell, who was working among Latino farm workers, introduced Chávez to Fred Ross (1910–), who three years earlier had formed the Community Services Organization (CSO). The CSO was dedicated to helping disadvantaged people help themselves by organizing themselves and exercising their rights as citizens. Chávez spent nights going from door to door, offering migrant workers help with practical problems and giving instructions on how to become American citizens. Registering to vote, in order to influence local government action, was a key aim of the CSO. Community organizing was a technique that became widespread in the 1950s and 1960s, largely influenced by the theories and teachings of Saul Alinsky (1909–1972). Alinsky developed his ideas while organizing poor working people in Chicago, Illinois, to stand up for their rights against a corrupt city government. Soon after their meeting, Ross hired Chávez to work full-time in establishing chapters of the CSO among Spanish-speaking communities in California.

Chávez was highly effective and had become a director of the CSO by 1958. One of the targets of Chávez as leader of the CSO was to attack the practice of hiring Mexican citizens to do farm work instead of American citizens, on grounds that the foreign nationals would work for lower wages. In 1959, the CSO under Chávez filed over eleven hundred complaints with the California government agency whose job was to ensure that growers hire local workers rather than Mexican citizens. Chávez publicized his campaign with marches and newspaper interviews. Later, Chávez would be criticized for trying to win benefits for American farm workers at the expense of equally poor migrant laborers from Mexico.

Organizing farm workers

In the early 1960s, Chávez urged the CSO to establish a branch specifically dedicated to migrant workers. When the organization declined to back his plan, Chávez resigned his position and went off on his own to begin organizing a labor union for migrant farm workers that he called the National Farm Workers Association, starting in the area around Delano, California. It was a difficult challenge. Farm workers often did not stay in once place long enough to establish ties that would encourage them to join a union. Their economic circumstances were so desperate that they could not afford to go without work, in the case of a strike. Farm owners who employed the workers resisted bitterly. For Chávez, progress was slow.

Chávez found an ally, working with a representative of the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the main organization representing a variety of labor unions in different industries. Together, they successfully organized agricultural workers to go on strike against owners of grape vineyards around Delano in 1965. The vineyard owners, realizing that a union would eventually lead to higher wages for their workers, at first simply refused to recognize the union as representing the workers and refused to meet its demands.

The grape boycott

Chávez then seized on another idea: the boycott. Chávez appealed to Americans who were sympathetic to the farm workers to refuse to buy California table grapes until the growers signed a contract with the United Farm Workers. Slowly at first and then with greater momentum, millions of Americans responded by pushing their shopping carts past

the grapes. Giving up eating grapes was a way—an easy way—to express sympathy for people, the farm workers, who represented the very bottom of the American economy.

The grape boycott in the 1960s came at a time of significant social upheaval in the United States. African Americans, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), were using similar tactics, including boycotts, to win equality under the law. Many college students were protesting against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75). The grape boycott of the United Farm Workers tapped into similar sentiments on behalf of darker-skinned peoples for a taste of economic and political equality.


Chávez tapped into another proven method of enlisting public support—fasting, or refusing to eat. It was a technique

that had been used successfully by Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), the leader of India's movement for independence from British rule. Between February and March of 1968, Chávez refused food for twenty-five days. At the end of his long fast, a Catholic Mass (religious service) was held; among those present was U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968) of New York, brother of assassinated president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) and himself a contender for the presidency in the election of 1968. Senator Kennedy described Chávez as "one of the heroic figures of our time."

Chávez had succeeded in bringing the entire nation's attention to the plight of the people living in extreme poverty in exchange for harvesting the nation's fresh fruits and vegetables. The campaign against the grape growers finally succeeded two years later, in 1970, when grape growers around Delano finally signed an agreement with the United Farm Workers to give grape pickers higher wages.

The struggle continues

The initial victory in the struggle with grape growers did not mark the end of struggles for Chávez and his United Farm Workers. Over the next two decades, the union continued to struggle to gain recognition among farm owners and support among workers and politicians. The results were mixed. In 1970, Chávez called for a consumer boycott of lettuce, which did not attract the same level of support as the earlier grape boycott. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (known as the Teamsters union), which generally represented truck drivers, started competing with the United Farm Workers union for the support of farm workers. In 1973, when the 1970 agreements with grape producers were due to be renewed, some farm owners signed contracts instead with the Teamsters union without votes by the workers affected. (Some critics accused the Teamsters of a secret agreement to work hand in hand with the growers to defeat the goals of the United Farm Workers.) The new contracts caused a renewed grape strike, which led to widespread violence. Many striking workers were arrested for violating court orders to avoid picketing, or marching in front of a farm or plant with signs, urging customers and workers to stay away. Many workers were beaten. In an effort to stop violence, Chávez canceled the strike and called for a new boycott of grapes, but with less success than the first boycott.

Gradually, a measure of calm was restored. The California legislature passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, which gave farm workers the right to form unions and negotiate with growers. (By contrast, in 1972, Arizona had passed a law barring agricultural workers from going on strike or from organizing boycotts.) In 1977, the United Farm Workers and the Teamsters union negotiated a peaceful end to their competition to represent farm workers, which saw the Teamsters leave the scene. By 1980, the United Farm Workers union had agreements with growers representing about forty-five thousand workers.

In the 1980s, however, the political climate changed. In 1982, a new governor, George Deukmejian (1928–), was elected who was far less sympathetic to the farm workers and more sympathetic to the growers. Soon, the state government reduced efforts to enforce the 1975 farm labor law. Growers refused to renew agreements with the union, leaving agricultural workers where they had been a decade earlier. Chávez, focusing on the issue of chemical poisons sprayed on grapes to combat plant disease and insects, launched a new national grape boycott in 1986, but with far less success than he experienced two decades earlier. Membership in the union declined, and Chávez himself was the target of criticism by those who said he insisted on tightly controlling the organization and did not allow workers a democratic voice in union affairs. Other critics objected to Chávez's insistence on focusing on the rights of American migrant workers, sometimes at the expense of immigrants from Mexico and Central America who also wanted to earn money picking American crops.

In 1991, the government of Mexico honored Chávez with the Aguila Azteca (Aztec Eagle), awarded for people of Mexican heritage whose contributions have been made outside of Mexico. On April 23, 1993, César Chávez died peacefully in his sleep. He left a wife, Helen Fabela, and eight children. A week later, forty thousand people marched behind his simple wooden coffin. The mourners included many veterans of the long fight for better pay and conditions in the fields. They also included many politicians and Hollywood celebrities who admired a man who never earned more than $5,000 a year, less than many of his union members, in a lifetime spent trying to improve the lives of migrant workers. In 1994, Chávez's widow received the Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001). It is the highest award given to civilians by the U.S. government.

—James L. Outman

For More Information


Altman, Linda Jacobs. Migrant Farm Workers: The Temporary People. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.

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

Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia. César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Matthiessen, Peter. Sal Si Puedes: César Chávez and the New American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1969.


Bardacke, Frank. "César's Ghost: Decline and Fall of the U.F.W." The Nation (July 26, 1993): p. 130.

"A Great and Good Man." Commonweal (June 4, 1993): p. 4.

Jones, Arthur. "Millions Reaped What César Chávez Sowed." National Catholic Reporter (May 7, 1993): p. 5.

Matthiessen, Peter. "César Chávez." The New Yorker (May 17, 1993): p. 82.

Salandini, Victor. "Threatened by Fasts, Foes, Chávez Held His Peace." National Catholic Reporter (May 7, 1993): p. 6.

Web Sites

"The Story of César Chávez." United Farm Workers. (accessed on March 11, 2004).

Chávez, César Estrada

views updated May 29 2018

Chávez, César Estrada

(b. 31 March 1927 in Yuma, Arizona; d. 23 April 1993 in Yuma, Arizona), founder and first president of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and one of America’s most influential labor leaders of the late twentieth century.

Chávez was one of five children born to Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada, both farmers. He grew up nourished by the values of his family and his rural Mexican-American community in Arizona. From his mother he learned the importance of nonviolence and self-sacrifice; his grandmother impressed upon him the values of the Catholic faith. As a youth he experienced racial discrimination in school and absorbed from the Mexican-American community the folklore of their struggle against oppression during the Mexican revolution. In 1939 the Chávez family lost their farm because of the Great Depression, and they joined the migrant stream flowing west into California. For the next ten years the Chávez family worked as farm laborers, moving from farm to farm in California, taking odd jobs to supplement their income when there was no farm work. Chávez did not graduate from high school.

Chávez joined the navy in 1944 and served as a coxswain apprentice. Two years later he returned to the family home in Delano, California, a small town in the San Joaquin Valley, and resumed work in the fields. On 22 October 1948 Chávez married Helen Fabela, whom he had first met when his family had passed through Delano following the crops. She became an important partner with Chávez as he began to fulfill his dream of doing something to improve the lot of farm workers. The couple eventually settled in San Jose, California, and began a family of eight children while Chávez worked for a lumber company.

In San Jose, Chávez met Father Donald McDonnell, a Catholic priest who, along with Father Thomas Mc-Cullough, was trying to work with farm laborers and Mexican bracero workers to improve their lot. The Chávez family regularly attended mass in the barrio church, where Chávez learned about the Papal Encyclicals on labor, the teaching of Saint Francis of Assisi, and Mahatma Gandhi.

He read Louis Fisher’s Life of Gandhi (1950), a book that made a deep impression on him. Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence would later become the hallmark of Chávez’s leadership of the farm worker movement.

In 1952 Fred Ross, an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO) in San Jose, met Chávez and was impressed by his sincerity and willingness to work. Soon Chávez was working full time for the CSO, where he quickly rose to the position of executive director of the CSO in California.

In 1962 Chávez resigned from the CSO to devote himself to building an independent farm workers union. He and his family moved back to Delano, where for the next three years Chávez slowly built up membership in the National Farm Worker’s Association (NFWA). Using his CSO training, Chávez emphasized the service aspect of his organization. He traveled extensively, talking to the workers to see what they thought about a union and the services it should provide. In 1962, at their first convention, they adopted the distinctive union flag, the black eagle on a red field. By August 1965 they had 1,700 dues-paying members and more than fifty locals.

From the beginning Chávez did not think of “La Causa” as a movement that would be motivated by appeals to race or nationality. When he had worked for the CSO, Chávez had confronted the issue of Mexican chauvinism and had been uncompromising in fighting for the inclusion of blacks within the organization. While the “core” leadership of the NFWA was Mexican American, the staff and hundreds of volunteer workers were predominantly Anglo-American.

On 15 September 1965, Mexican Independence Day, NFWA members voted to support the Filipino grape pickers who were on strike, spontaneously joining a struggle that they had long considered their own. The Delano table and wine grape strike, which was sponsored by the AFL-CIO affiliated Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), was the largest such strike in the history of California. The region covered a 400-square-mile area and involved thousands of workers. Chávez’s main activity during the early months of the strike was traveling around the state to various college campuses to galvanize support for the striking farm workers. His emphasis on the workers’ civil rights and economic justice fit in with a growing national concern about civil rights.

Dramatic events gave momentum to the strike. On 17 March 1966 Chávez organized a march from Delano to Sacramento, California, to dramatize the struggle and get the support of Governor Pat Brown. The march helped recruit more members and spread the spirit of the strike. As they passed through each small farming town, hundreds of workers greeted them. Some joined the march to carry the union flags to the next town.

Just prior to the end of the pilgrimage, the first grower, Schenley Corporation, announced that it was willing to sign a contract with the AWOC. On 7 April the agreement was made public. In a triumphant mood, the pilgrimage ended a few days later on the steps of the state capitol. The union had won its first victory. On 22 August 1966, the AWOC and NFWA merged to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), a united union within the AFL-CIO, later to become the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

During the next four years, the UFW grew in strength, nourished by the support of millions of sympathetic Americans. Hundreds of student volunteers lived on poverty wages in the big cities to organize an international boycott of table grapes. Scores of priests, nuns, ministers, and church members donated time, money, facilities and energies to the cause. Organized labor donated millions of dollars to the UFW strike fund. Millions of Americans gave up eating table grapes. All this was inspired by the example of Chávez, the soft-spoken, humble leader who quietly worked to revolutionize grower-worker relations.

In 1968, at the height of the strike, Chávez began a fast to protest the mounting talk of violence. Soon hundreds of farm worker families began appearing at Forty Acres, the union headquarters near Delano, to show their support for Chávez and to attend the daily mass that he also attended. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent a telegram supporting Chávez. When Chávez finally decided to end his fast on the twenty-fifth day, he asked Senator Robert F. Kennedy to attend. On March 11 they held a mass at a county park with more than 4,000 farm workers in attendance, along with national reporters from the major papers and television cameras. The mass was said on the back of a flatbed truck. In a short speech after the mass Chávez declared to the assembled group: “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!”

By 1969 Chávez had organized a boycott of all California table grapes, and shipments of such produce had practically stopped to the cities of Boston; New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Chicago; Detroit; Montreal, Canada; and Toronto, Canada. Grape sales fell, while millions of pounds of the fruit rotted in cold storage sheds. Finally, on 29 July 1970, twenty-six Delano growers filed into Reuther Hall on Forty Acres to sign contracts. This victory was without precedent in the history of American agriculture. Never before had an agricultural workers union achieved such sweeping success.

There were immediate indications that the farm workers were facing another formidable challenge from the Teamsters and table grape and iceberg lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley in California, who were conspiring to undercut the UFW’s newly won recognition. The Teamsters had signed sweetheart contracts giving the vegetable growers almost all that they wanted while sacrificing workers’ benefits. To challenge this, Chávez moved the staff headquarters of the union to Salinas and began organizing workers. Finally he called for a general strike.

In late 1972 California voters considered Proposition 22, an initiative that would outlaw boycotting and limit secret ballot elections to full-time nonseasonal employees. Throughout the fall, the union’s “No on 22” campaign gathered momentum through the use of human billboards. On 7 November 1972, Proposition 22 was defeated by a margin of fifty-eight percent. The UFW had used the boycott organization to mobilize support and had proven itself a serious political force.

Meanwhile the lettuce boycott and struggle with the Teamsters continued. Soon violence exploded and two union members were killed. On 1 September, Chávez decided to call off the strike and resume the boycott. The decision to abandon the strike was motivated in part by his desire to avoid future violence but also by his deeply-held feeling that a boycott would be more effective than a strike. The Teamsters finally gave up their campaign to organize field workers and take over UFW contracts late in 1974.

During the Teamster struggle, Chávez decided to organize another march. On 22 February 1975 he began a 110-mile march from San Francisco to Modesto, California, home of the Gallo Wineries. More than 15,000 supporters participated.

The newly elected governor of California, Jerry Brown, supported the cause and helped pass a California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in May 1975, the first law in the continental United States governing farm labor organizing (farm workers in Hawaii had a similar law). The law gave the UFW secret ballot elections, the right to boycott, voting rights for migrant seasonal workers, and control over the timing of elections.

In terms of union building, the period following the passage of the California Farm Labor Act was one of growth in membership and contracts. The UFW had won almost two-thirds of the elections after 1975, and the Teamsters admitted in March 1977 that they were beaten and would not contest future elections. The dues-paying membership of the UFW soared to over 100,000 by 1978.

In the 1980s, as a result of the stalemate promoted by the California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board, Chávez came to the conclusion that the best tactic was to boycott in order to force the growers to sign contracts. He announced on 12 June 1984 that the union would embark on a new grape boycott. He also decided to protest against pesticides usage by beginning a fast on 16 July 1988. The fast went largely unnoticed by the public until the children of Robert Kennedy visited him at La Paz, his home and the UFW headquarters, in Keene, California, to lend their support. Finally on 22 August, Chávez gave up his water-only fast.

Chávez was confident about the ultimate success of the UFW struggle and remained so until his unexpected death from natural causes in Yuma, Arizona, on 23 April 1993. The tremendous outpouring of condolences and support that followed his death was a testimony to his importance as a leader who touched the conscience of the nation. More than 40,000 people followed his casket for three miles from downtown Delano to the union’s old headquarters at Forty Acres. Expressions of regret for his passing came from around the world, from international political, labor, and spiritual leaders as well as from thousands of poor migrant farm workers, to whom he had dedicated his life. He was buried at La Paz, in a rose garden at the foot of the hill he often climbed to watch the sun rise.

Chávez’s inspiring leadership of El Movimiento changed the way Americans thought about farm workers. Under his direction, the UFW brought the social and economic problems of Mexican Americans into the nation’s consciousness. For his accomplishments Chávez was awarded the Agulia Azteca (“Aztec Eagle”), Mexico’s highest award presented to people of Mexican heritage who have made major contributions outside of Mexico. In 1994 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, by President Bill Clinton. In August 2000, the state of California declared his birthday an official holiday, recognizing his greatest achievements of moral leadership and a commitment to social justice.

The UFW archives at La Paz, in Keene, California, contain materials relating to Chávez and the union. Biographical treatments include Richard Griswold del Castillo and Richard Garcia, César Chávez: Triumph of the Spirit (1995). Jacques Levy, César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa (1975), is the most comprehensive source produced by insiders in the union. Also in this category are Eugene Nelson, Huelga: The First Hundred Days of the Great Delano Grape Strike (1966), and Mark Day, Forty Acres: César Chávez and the Farm Workers (1971). See also Peter Matthiessen, Sal Si Puedes: César Chávez and the New American Revolution (1969); Sam Kushner, The Long Road to Delano (1975); Ronald Taylor, Chávez and the Farm Workers (1975); and Susan Ferriss et al., eds., The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (24 Apr. 1993).

Richard Griswold del Castillo

Chávez, C

views updated May 21 2018

Chávez, César E.

César Estrada Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona, on March 31, 1927. Eleven years later, his family lost their farm and joined several hundred thousand other migrants working California's crops under terrible conditions. By the time of his death at 63, Chávez had organized farmworkers, improved their wages and living conditions, shaped public awareness, and prompted government regulations that reduced their exposure to dangerous pesticides.

After dropping out of school and serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II (19441945), Chávez did farm work for seven years. Beginning in 1952, he registered voters and organized chapters of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Mexican-American equal rights movement, in California. He left CSO in 1962 to establish a separate union that eventually became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in 1973.

After Chávez led a series of migrant worker strikes against vineyards, most grape growers signed contracts restricting dangerous pesticides as a result, long before comparable government restrictions were put in place. Chávez continued the struggle because most growers persisted in their abusive pesticide practices and refused to renew their contracts with proactive migrant workers.

When research found that 300,000 people in central California suffered from pesticide-related illnesses, and there was a high incidence of cancer among children in the same region, Chávez initiated another grape boycott in 1984. He fasted for a life-threatening thirty-six days in mid-1988 to augment his antipesticide protest. Ultimately, his controversial nonviolent strategies significantly raised American awareness of farm pesticide dangers, changed public policies, and concentrated his union's efforts well into the 1990s.

In 1994 President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Chávez the U.S. Medal of Freedom. Days later, Governor Pete Wilson signed a bill making Chávez's birth date an official holiday in California. In carrying out his life's mission, Chávez exemplified a unique blend of beliefs, behaviors, and commitments along with nonviolence, egalitarianism, political activism, volunteerism, solidarity/unity, and respect for all cultures, religions, and lifestyles.

see also Activism; Labor, Farm; Pesticides.


Griswold Del Castillo, Richard, and García, Richard. (1995). César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press.

Ferriss, Susan, and Sandoval, Ricardo. (1997). The Fight in the FieldsCésar Chávez and the Farmworker Movement. Orlando, FL: Harcourt and Brace.

Matthiessen, Peter. (1997). Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can)César Chávez and the New American Revolution Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ross, Fred. (1989). Conquering GoliathCésar Chávez at the Beginning. La Paz, CA: El Taller Grafico Press.

Internet Resources

San Francisco State University, César E. Chávez Institute for Public Policy Web site. Available from

United Farm Workers Web site. Available from

José B. Cuellar

Chávez, César Estrada

views updated May 29 2018


César Estrada Chávez, the son of Mexican American farm workers, became a well-known labor leader, founding the united farm workers (UFW) union, which led a massive grape boycott across the United States during the 1960s. Chávez won wage increases, benefits, and legal protections for migrant farm workers in the western United States and fought to have dangerous pesticides outlawed.

Chávez was born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, one of five children in a family that lived on a small farm for a time. When he was a child, the family was pushed onto the road as migrant laborers when Chávez's parents lost the family farm during the Great Depression. Later, he often spoke of what he felt was the unjust way in which his family had lost their property through foreclosure. Chávez never went beyond the eighth grade, and he once said that he had attended over 60 elementary schools because of his family's constant search for work in the fields.

Chávez was exposed to labor organizing as a young boy, when his father and uncle joined a dried-fruit industry union during the late 1930s. The young Chávez was deeply impressed when the workers later went on strike. At age 19, Chávez himself picketed cotton fields but watched the union fail in its efforts to organize the workers.

After serving in the U.S. Navy during world war ii, he returned to California, where he married a woman named Helen Fabela. In 1952, the Los Angeles headquarters of organizer Saul Alinsky's Community Service Organization (CSO) decided to set up a chapter in San Jose, California, to work for civil rights for the area's Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants. A parish priest supplied several names to CSO organizer Fred Ross, including that of Chávez, who was then living in one of San Jose's poorest and toughest neighborhoods—Sal Si Puedes (leave, if you can). Ross believed that Chávez could be the best grassroots leader he had ever encountered, so he sought Chávez out and eventually convinced him to join the group's efforts. Chávez began as a volunteer in a CSO voter registration drive and a few months later was hired as a staff member. He spent the next ten years leading voter registration drives throughout the San Joaquin Valley and advocating for Mexican immigrants who complained of mistreatment by police officers, immigration authorities, and welfare officials.

Chávez believed that unionizing was the only chance for farm workers to improve their working conditions. He resigned in 1962, increasingly frustrated because the CSO would not become involved in forming a farm workers' union. He immediately established the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the UFW, an affiliate of the american federation of labor and congress of industrial organizations (AFL-CIO). At the UFW's first meeting in September 1962, in Fresno, California, Chávez's cousin, Manuel Chávez, unveiled the flag that he and Chávez had designed for the new union—a black Aztec eagle in a white circle on a bold red background. The banner soon became the symbol of the farm workers' struggle.

When Chávez founded the UFW, field workers in California averaged $1.50 per hour, received no benefits, and had no methods by which to challenge their employers. Under Chávez's leadership, the UFW won tremendous

wage increases and extensive benefits for farm workers, including medical and unemployment insurance and workers' compensation.A strict believer in nonviolence, Chávez used marches, boycotts, strikes, fasts, and civil disobedience to force growers in California's agricultural valleys to the bargaining table. In 1968, Filipino grape pickers in Delano, California, struck for higher wages; several days later, the UFW joined the strike and initiated a boycott of California grapes. More than 200 union supporters traveled across the United States and into Canada, urging consumers not to buy California grapes. The mayors of New York, Boston, Detroit, and St. Louis announced that their cities would not buy nonunion grapes. By August 1968, California grape growers estimated that the boycott had cost them about 20 percent of their expected revenue. The boycott brought Chávez to the attention of national political leaders, including U.S. Senator robert f. kennedy, who sought the democratic party nomination for president before his assassination in 1968. Kennedy described Chávez as a heroic figure. In 1970, after its successful boycott, the UFW signed contracts with the grape growers.

"Our struggle is not easy … But we have something the rich do not own. We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons."
—CÉsar ChÁvez

In 1975, Chávez had a great success when the strongest law ever enacted to protect farm workers, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (Cal. Lab. Code § 1140 et seq. [West]), was passed by the California Legislature. This law gave workers the right to bargain collectively and the right to seek redress for unfair labor practices. Other regulations banned the use of tools that caused crippling back injuries, such as the short-handled hoe, and required growers to give workers breaks and to provide toilets and fresh water in the fields. Chávez was among the first to link workers' health problems to pesticides. He negotiated union contracts that prohibited growers from using DDT, and he targeted five leading pesticides that cause birth defects or kill upon contact.

At its peak during the 1970s the UFW had over 70,000 members. During the early 1980s, the UFW's influence began to wane and union membership dipped below ten thousand. Chávez blamed the decline in part on the election of Republican governors, who sided with the growers. In addition, Chávez decided to turn his efforts toward conducting boycotts rather than organizing workers, a move that was widely criticized and caused a split among the union's members. Chávez was also forced to defend himself against lawsuits stemming from UFW actions taken years before. In 1991, the union lost a $2.4 million case when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear its appeal. The case stemmed from a 1979 Imperial Valley strike in which a farm worker was shot and killed (Maggio, Inc. v. United Farm Workers of America, 227 Cal. App. 3d 847, 278 Cal. Rptr. 250 [Cal. App. 1991], cert. denied, 502 U.S. 863, 112 S. Ct. 187, 116 L. Ed. 2d 148 [1991]).

In April 1993, Chávez returned to San Luis, a small town near his native Yuma, Arizona, to testify in the retrial of a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church, Inc., a large Salinas, California–based producer of iceberg lettuce. At the time Chávez testified, Bruce Church had extensive landholdings in Arizona and California, including the acreage east of Yuma that Chávez's parents had once owned. The company had won a $5.4 million judgment for alleged damage caused by union boycotts, but an appellate court over-turned the judgment and sent the case back to the trial court (Bruce Church, Inc. v. United Farm Workers of America, 816 P. 2d 919 [Ariz. App. 1991]). On April 22, Chávez finished his second day of testimony in Yuma County Superior Court. He returned to spend the night at the home of a family friend and died in his sleep.

Following Chávez's death, Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, described the leader as instrumental in organized labor's efforts to improve the lot of the worker. "Always, César had conveyed hope and determination, especially to minority workers, in the daily struggle against injustice and hardship," Kirkland said. "The improved lives of millions of farm workers and their families will endure as a testimonial to César and his life's work."

In a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Chávez said, "Regardless of what the future holds for our union, regardless of what the future holds for farm workers, our accomplishment cannot be undone. The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm."

further readings

Etulain, Richard W., ed. 2002. Cesar Chavez: A Brief Biography with Documents New York: Palgrav.

Houle, Michelle, ed. 2003. Cesar Chavez. San Diego, Calif: Greenhaven Press.

Matthiessen, Peter. 1969. Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. New York: Random House.

Tracy, Kathleen. 2003. Cesar Chavez. Bear, Del.: Mitchell Lane.


Agricultural Law; Labor Union.

Chávez, César

views updated May 29 2018

CÉsar ChÁvez

Born: March 31, 1927
Yuma, Arizona
Died: April 22, 1993
San Luis, Arizona

Hispanic American labor leader and champion of migrant worker rights

César Chávez was an Hispanic American labor leader who organized the first effective union of farm workers in the history of California agriculture.

Early years

César Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Arizona. He was the second of Librado and Juana Estrada Chávez's six children. His parents owned a store and worked on a farm of over one hundred acres that Chávez's grandfather, Césario Chávez, had established. The Chávez family was kicked off its land for failing to pay its taxes during the Great Depression of the 1930s (when nearly half the industrial workers in the United States lost their jobs, leading to lower demand for goods and services). The family then joined the many migrant (traveling) laborers streaming into California.

Chávez quit school while in the seventh grade to work full-time in the fields, but he was not really educated even to that levelhe could barely read and write. In 1944 he joined the U.S. Navy and served for two years. Since he was never allowed to advance beyond low-level jobs, he continued as a farm worker in California upon completing his service. In 1948 he married Helen Fabela of Delano, California. Migrant farm workers at that time worked long hours in the fields for very little money. Sometimes their employers would not pay them at all, and there was nothing they could donowhere to turn. Many of the farm workers were not U.S. citizens. In an interview with the Farm Worker Press, Chávez remembered, "When I was nineteen I joined the National Agricultural Workers Union. But it didn't have any more success than any of the other farm workers' unions."

Organizing and boycotting

As Chávez worked in the vineyards (land containing grapevines) and fruit orchards of California, he used his free time to educate himself. He read about famous labor leaders and became interested in the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi (18691948), the Indian leader who preached nonviolent resistance in his country's struggle for independence. Chávez, after a couple of failed strikes by his fellow workers, realized that better organization was needed. In 1952 he met Fred Ross, who was organizing Mexican Americans in California's barrios (mainly Spanish-speaking cities or towns) into the Community Service Organization (CSO). The organization concentrated on voter registration, citizenship classes, and helping Mexican American communities obtain needed facilities (such as schools and medical care) in the barrios. The organization also helped individuals with typical problems such as getting welfare, dealing with crooked salesmen, and police injustice.

Chávez's work in the voter registration drive in Sal Si Puedes ("Get out if you can"), a rough San Jose, California, barrio, was so effective that Ross hired him as an organizer. Over the next ten years Chávez rose to become national director of CSO. In 1962, when the CSO rejected his proposal to start a farm workers' union, he quit the organization. At thirty-five years of age, with $1,200 in savings, he took his wife and eight children to Delano to begin the slow, step-by-step organizing process that grew into the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Three years later, when members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) went on strike against the vineyards in Delano, they asked for support from Chávez's NFWA.

Thus began the great California table-grape strike, which lasted five years. In 1966 the two unions merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) of the AFL-CIO, headed by Chávez. During the struggle to organize the vineyards, Chávez began an international boycott (to join together in refusing to deal with an item, person, or company in an effort to change practices) of California table grapes. This boycott brought such pressure on local grape growers that most eventually signed with Chávez's union. The boycott ended in September 1970. Soon after this victory Chávez started another boycott, this time against lettuce growers who used nonunion labor. Chávez became the first man ever to organize a farm workers' union in California that obtained signed contracts from the agricultural industry.

Believed in nonviolence

Chávez was an outspoken believer in Gandhi's idea of social change through nonviolent means. In 1968, to prevent violence in the grape strike, he fasted (went without eating) for twenty-five days. The fast was broken at an outdoor mass attended by some four thousand people, including Senator Robert F. Kennedy (19251968). Chávez fasted on several other occasions, including twenty-four days in 1972 to protest antiunion laws in Arizona and for thirty-six days in 1988 to call attention to the continued poor treatment of vineyard workers. Chávez grew dangerously weak after this fast. Another protest involved Chávez leading a two-hundred-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, California, to call attention to the demands of the farm workers.

In July 1970 Chávez's union faced one of its most serious challenges, when the Teamsters Union signed contracts that applied to farm workers with some two hundred growers in California. Chávez met the challenge head on: within three weeks the largest agricultural strike ever to hit California had spread along the coastal valleys. About seven thousand farm workers went on strike to win recognition of Chávez's UFWOC as their bargaining agent, with the national boycott again used as the weapon. However, the union gradually lost its strength. From 1972 to 1974, membership decreased from nearly sixty thousand to just five thousand. But Chávez's efforts had made a difference. From 1964 to 1980, wages of California migrant workers had increased 70 percent, workers received health care benefits, and a formal policy for handling worker grievances (complaints) was established.

Chávez continued to fight for the rights of workers up until the day of his death on April 22, 1993. He had had nothing but a few glasses of water in the six days before his death. He was elected to the Labor Department's Hall of Fame in 1999 for his work toward improving the treatment of farm workers.

For More Information

Cedeño, Maria E. Cesar Chavez: Labor Leader. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1993.

Collins, David R. Farmworker's Friend: The Story of César Chávez. Minneapolis, MN.: Carolrhoda Books, 1996.

Ferriss, Susan, et. al. The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.

Gonzales, Doreen. César Chávez: Leader for Migrant Farm Workers. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.

Chavez, Cesar Estrada

views updated May 21 2018


Cesar Chavez (19271993) was raised in Arizona as the son of a farming family. He devoted his life to union organizing and nonviolent social activism on behalf of laborers in the fields and vineyards of the Southwest. The founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), Chavez planted the seeds of a broadlybased civil rights movement among Hispanic Americans. As a deeply religious man he drew from the teachings of his Roman Catholic heritage. He was also deeply influenced by the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. (19291968), Mohandas Gandhi (18691948), and the tactics of radical community activist, Saul Alinsky.

Cesar Chavez was barely ten years old when a bank repossessed his family's farm. With his parents and four siblings, he became one of thousands of migrant workers roving from one crop harvest to another. They all worked to earn a marginal existence during the Great Depression.

Chavez was twelve when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began organizing dried-fruit industry workers. His father and uncle actively supported unions. In this way the boy learned firsthand about strikes, picket lines and organizing operations. Most efforts, however, failed to organize farm workers in those days. After long and brutally exhausting days in the field, there was little time to attend meetings. The labor force was constantly shifting from place to place, and many of the Mexican immigrants feared personal retribution by farm owners if they joined together to protest working conditions.

Chavez's family moved from one migrant labor camp to another; Chavez later said that though he attended 65 schools, he never graduated from high school. He served in the U.S. Navy for two years during World War II (19391945). When the war was over he returned to working in the fields. Three years later he married Helen Fabela, a fellow migrant worker. They shared strong religious beliefs and a commitment to investing farm workers with hope and dignity.

In 1952 Chavez began actively organizing workers in the fields. He was recruited and trained for his work by the California-based Community Service Organization (CSO). During the next ten years Chavez built new chapters of CSO, led voter registration drives, and helped Mexican-Americans confront issues of police and immigration abuse. In 1958 he became general director of CSO. He resigned four years later to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with $1,200 of his own savings.

Organizing farm workers was agonizingly slow work, but by 1965 Chavez had organized a union with a membership of 1700 workers. The staff was composed mostly of Roman Catholic clerics and lay people. In September of that year Chavez led California grape pickers on a five-year strike. Grape growers fought back, but gradually the nation's consumers swung to the workers' side and stopped buying grapes. By 1968 there was a nationwide boycott of California grapes, and the growers were forced to negotiate.

Chavez went on to wage a successful boycott of iceberg lettuce. Like Gandhi, he dramatized his fights against grape growers and lettuce producers by fasting and inviting arrest. He picketed alongside his workers and did jail time with them. By the late 1960s the movement had been baptized La Causa (The Cause).

In 1966 Chavez's union merged with the AFLCIO Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. It became the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). By May 1970 farmer after farmer signed contracts with UFWOC, but problems arose three years later when it was time for these contracts to be renewed. The UFWOCnow renamed the United Farm Workers of America (UFW)found itself challenged by the National Teamsters Union. Backed by growers who saw an opportunity to weaken or break the UFW, the Teamsters were moderately successful in luring workers away from the UFW. After years of conflict between the two unions an agreement was signed giving UFW the sole right to organize farm workers.

In the final years of Chavez's life the UFW and La Causa were troubled with internal dissension. Union membership fell from a peak 100,000 members to 20,000 agricultural workers. This represented a small precentage of the actual number of men and women working in the fields. Many of Chavez's key lieutenants resigned in protest against his increasingly eccentric behavior and autocratic management of the UFW's affairs. But among his followers and supporters Chavez remained respected and admired. La Causa continued to attract nuns, priests, ministers, rabbis and other veterans of the nonviolent civil rights and antiwar movements.

Chavez's self-sacrifice and personal devotion to the cause of liberating farm workers from exploitation was an inspiration to millions. He brought the nation's attention to the plight of desperately poor migrant workers. His legacy does not consist only of the increases in pay, eligibility for medical insurance, employer-paid pensions, and unemployment benefits that UFW members received. He was responsible for La Causa, the birth of the Hispanic American civil rights movement. When Chavez died in his sleep on April 23, 1993, at age 66, he was on the road in Arizona working for his union.

See also: Agriculture Industry, American Federation of Labor, Congress of Industrial Organizations, United Farm Workers


Barr, Evan T. "Sour Grapes: Cesar Chavez 20 Years Later." The New Republic, 25 November 1985.

Cletus, Daniel. "Cesar Chavez and the Unionization of California Farm Workers." In Labor Leaders in America, edited by Melvin Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

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

Jones, Arthur. "Millions Reaped What Cesar Chavez Sowed." National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1993.

Kannellos, Nicholas, ed. Hispanic-American Almanac. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Tardiff, Joseph, and L. Mpho Mabunda, ed. Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.

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

Chávez, César Estrada

views updated May 17 2018

CHÁVEZ, César Estrada

(b. 31 March 1927 near Yuma, Arizona; d. 23 April 1993 in San Luis, Arizona), founder of the United Farm Workers of America, who during the 1960s used boycotts and strikes to fight for human rights and labor concessions and who became the most important Mexican-American leader in the history of the United States.

Chávez was one of four children born to Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada, who lived near Yuma, a dusty town where the borders of Mexico, California, and Arizona converge. There they ran a farm and three small businesses, but in 1938, when Chávez was eleven, the family lost the farm to foreclosure and went to California, where they eked out a living by picking tomatoes, lettuce, and other crops. Chávez worked alongside his parents in the fields, attending school infrequently as the family moved from town to town in search of work. By the time he quit for good upon completing the eighth grade, Chávez had attended no fewer than thirty-six schools. Thereafter he continued his education on his own, reading the works of Gandhi and others in both Spanish and English.

After serving two years (1944–1945) in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy during World War II, Chávez married Helen Fabela in 1948. They had eight children. In 1952 Fred Ross, a labor organizer who would become a lifelong friend, recruited Chávez to help the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Mexican-American civil rights group, register voters. Soon Chávez had a full-time job as an organizer with CSO, and by 1959 he had become executive director of the group. In 1962, when CSO rejected Chávez's suggestion to begin organizing farm workers, Chávez quit his post and formed his own union, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), later the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), in Delano, California, at the heart of the state's fertile central valley.

Chávez had grown up seeing his parents and other workers systematically mistreated by the growers who employed them; they toiled for next to nothing under conditions that were often horrific. When Chávez started the union, many farm workers had neither toilets nor running water in their homes, and most of their children did not receive vaccinations. The growers often promised one wage but paid another, and usually provided no toilet facilities or drinking water in the sun-baked fields. The workers earned an average of $2,400 per year, far below the poverty line. If they complained, they were fired, as an unlimited supply of immigrant labor was available through the Bracero Program, endorsed by the federal government.

Chávez logged hundreds of miles across California, convincing farm workers one by one to join his union. Soon the UFW was not only viable but had its own newspaper, El Malcriado, and a farm workers' credit union. In 1965 the union had its first small strike, wherein eighty-five rose growers won higher wages in a three-day walkout. In September of that year, after their wages were reduced from $1.40 to $1.00 per hour, 2,000 union grape pickers began an epic strike. The strikers were under strict instructions from Chávez to remain peaceful, even as the growers and their hired thugs brandished guns, sprayed pesticide on them, threatened them with dogs, and beat them with their fists while local law enforcement looked the other way. Chávez himself sustained bruised ribs from punches, but he remained steadfastly committed to the nonviolent philosophy he had absorbed from the writings of Gandhi. "We are engaged in another struggle for the freedom and dignity which poverty denies us," he said. "But it must not be a violent struggle, even if violence is used against us. Violence can only hurt us and our cause."

The strike made national news. Reporters flocked to the valley, students and clergymen arrived offering to help, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) secretly began investigating Chávez and the UFW. On 19 October, forty-four picketers, including Chávez's wife, were arrested for shouting the word huelga (strike) in public. In December the union began a boycott of Schenley Industries, which produced wine with the grapes picked by the striking workers. Public opinion began to swing toward farm workers, and Chávez won the support of the labor leader Walter Reuther and of Senator Robert Kennedy, who marched on a picket line alongside the workers.

Finally, on 17 March 1966, after six months of striking, Chávez organized a march from Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento, a 245-mile trek that was the longest protest march in United States history. By the end of the march Chávez had blistered feet and needed a cane to walk, but the protest resulted in new union contracts with several of the state's largest growers. Chávez's next target was the DiGiorgio Corporation, which had denied its workers the right to union representation. A UFW boycott of DiGiorgio grapes in grocery stores eventually forced the company to give in, a victory that prompted a congratulatory telegram to Chávez from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

In January 1968, with many grape growers still refusing to negotiate, Chávez launched an ambitious boycott of all California grapes; this became the most prolonged and successful boycott in American history. He began his first public fast the next month, consuming nothing but Diet Rite cola for twenty-five days. The fast brought publicity to the grape boycott, which succeeded in removing California grapes from grocery stores in most major cities. But what consumers would not buy, President Richard M. Nixon would. To combat the union, the new president ordered the Department of Defense to increase its consumption of California grapes from 6.9 million pounds to 11 million pounds per year.

On 29 July 1970 the grape growers agreed to a union contract. By this time Chávez was world-famous, having been the subject of several biographies and a Time magazine cover story. His movements were still monitored closely by the FBI, and frustrated fruit growers organized break-ins at UFW offices. Chávez survived two assassination plots, one allegedly masterminded by the grape growers and the other by the Teamsters Union, which wanted to take over the UFW's contracts.

In 1975, under intense pressure from Chávez, the California legislature passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, a state law that gave farmworkers the right to unionize even against their employers' wishes. Chávez continued to utilize fasts and boycotts throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and kept fighting against the growers' use of pesticides, which were believed to have caused illness in thousands of workers. In 1993 he traveled to Arizona to defend the union in a lawsuit filed by the lettuce conglomerate Bruce Church Incorporated, which claimed to have lost millions of dollars to union boycotts. (Ironically, Bruce Church was the current owner of the family homestead seized from Chávez's parents fifty-five years earlier.) After testifying in court on 22 April 1993, Chávez broke his final fast with a meal of rice and cabbage, retired for the evening, and died in his bed with a book in his hands. Chávez was buried at the UFW headquarters in Keene, California; at his request, he was interred in a plain pine coffin. Arturo Rodriguez, Chávez's son-in-law, succeeded him as president of the United Farm Workers.

A small, quiet man and a devout Catholic, Chávez was the antithesis of the stereotypical labor leader. He lacked fancy clothes and a formal education, never owned a house or a car, and never made more than $6,000 per year. But he was one of the most successful organizers in American history. At the time of his death the union he had started from scratch had 22,000 members. More importantly, he provided the moral compass for the Mexican-American civil rights movement that is in force to this day. Chávez had always envisioned the UFW not as a traditional labor union but rather as a social movement that could change the lives of Mexican-Americans in general. "Ninety-five percent of the strikers lost their homes and their cars," Chávez said after the 1970 grape strike. "But I think in losing those worldly possessions they found themselves."

Chávez collaborated with Jacques Levy on an autobiography, César Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa (1975). Dozens of other biographies have been published; among the most insightful are Fred Ross, Conquering Goliath: César Chávez at the Beginning (1989); Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement (1997); and Ann McGregor and Cindy Wathen, Remembering César: The Legacy of César Chávez (2000). A cover article appears in Time (4 July 1969).

Eric Enders