BORN: March 31, 1927 • Yuma, Arizona
DIED: April 23, 1993 • San Luis, Arizona
Mexican American labor leader, social activist
Cesar Chavez was a Mexican American labor leader and social activist who fought against racial prejudice. He founded and led the first successful farmworkers' union (organized groups of workers joined together for a common purpose, such as better working conditions) in the United States. Chavez captured the nation's attention in 1965 when he organized the largest agricultural strike (refusal to work until demands for fair treatment are met) on record. As a civil rights leader, Chavez spoke out for economic and social justice during the turbulent years following World War II (1939–45). His message of nonviolence, fairness, and respect brought about peaceful change and instilled a sense of cultural pride in Mexican Americans who were struggling for equality. In 1994, Chavez was posthumously (post-death) awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.
"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!"
The Great Depression
When Cesar Estrada Chavez was born in the spring of 1927, his family owned and operated a small business near Yuma, Arizona. His parents, Librado and Juana Estrada Chavez, lost their business as well as the family farm during the Great Depression (1929–41), a prolonged and severe worldwide economic slump that led to high unemployment rates and much hunger and homelessness. When Chavez was ten years old, the family joined thousands of other migrant farmworkers who followed the harvest circuit throughout the American Southwest. The annual routine began in early winter in the Imperial Valley just across the California-Arizona border and ended in the San Joaquin Valley in northern California after Christmas.
Family farms lost through foreclosure (failure to make mortgage payments) were incorporated into large land holdings as the Depression progressed. The spirit of cooperation that often existed between laborers and small farm owners did not exist with the large company farms. They were operated by absentee owners who could easily distance themselves from the suffering of fieldworkers. In the 1930s, author John Steinbeck (1902–1968) wrote his most famous novel titled The Grapes of Wrath and based on a fictional migrant camp located in the San Joaquin Valley. The book chronicled the lives of the dispossessed, or cast out, population of migrant workers who roamed California's rich agricultural valleys during the Depression.
The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was established in 1935 as a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its task was to document and report on the lives of impoverished farmers and laborers who were suffering the effects of poor land conditions in addition to the deepening economic crisis. FSA director Roy Stryker (1893–1975) hired an impressive group of photographers, including Esther Bubley (1921–1998) and Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), to make a photographic record of the workers' conditions. Lange's photograph titled "Migrant Mother" became one of the best-known images to come out of the department's extensive photograph collection.
Chavez's father imparted the knowledge of farming and the value of honest labor to his six children. He refused to tolerate prejudice (a negative attitude, emotion, or behavior towards individuals based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience) and discrimination (treating some differently than others or favoring one social group over another based on prejudices). He would lead his family out of the fields whenever they were faced with such abuses as unsanitary conditions and lack of clean water. Over the years, Librado Chavez joined several labor unions that attempted to organize. He was the first to stop working if leaders called for a Huelga (Spanish for strike). Efforts to unionize were often met by intimidation, reduced wages, and even violence by the state's big growers.
Juana Chavez was a deeply religious woman whose Catholicism sustained the family during difficult times. She taught her children the importance of caring for the less fortunate, despite their own family's hardships. Juana, who was illiterate (could not read), was determined that her children receive an education. It was Chavez's parents' influence that molded his enduring commitment to religion, labor activism, and social justice.
A trail of crops
Life for migrant workers was very difficult throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Poor whites from Oklahoma and Arkansas were uprooted from their homes along with poor blacks from the South and Hispanics from the Southwest. They all headed for the California fields in search of for work. However, the African American and Mexican American workers faced the additional burden of racial and ethnic prejudices and discrimination when they arrived. Many migrants who were of Hispanic descent could speak little English. Dishonest farm owners easily took advantage of them by paying less money than what the workers expected or requiring the workers to work longer hours than originally understood.
In the Depression-era fields, job competition created fierce rivalries among migrants because there were so many unemployed workers. The exhausting field work was made more difficult because a worker's earnings depended on speed. Paid by the basketful, workers rushed to pick and deliver the produce. The increased production not only earned more money, but also set a laborer apart from others seeking jobs. Children joined adults in the field to put food on the table. However, families still could not earn enough for rent. Many slept in cars or erected crude shacks on the edge of a town.
Social class prejudice (groups of people sharing similar wealth and social standing) and racial prejudices existed in the schools and towns where workers settled in addition to the fields they worked. Tradition in California had long separated residents based on their skin color and individual wealth. Segregation (keeping races apart in public places) of Mexican Americans and whites was the accepted practice in restaurants, stores, theaters, and even schools during the Depression. Children were punished for speaking Spanish in class and often humiliated for making mistakes in English. Racist (prejudice against people of a particular physical trait, such as skin color) remarks against the Hispanic students were commonplace. Prejudice and a heavy workload disrupted any formal education the Chavez children received. Chavez left school after completing the eighth grade at the age of fifteen. As a teenager, Chavez favored the baggy zoot suits (see box) that were popular among Hispanic pachucos (tough guys). The outfits carried a negative image among white Americans and further fueled existing prejudices.
Zoot suits were a popular style of dress for young Hispanic males in the early 1940s. The outfit was distinguished by its high-waist pants that ended in a tight cuff around the ankles. A long coat was worn over the pants with a hanging watch chain as an accessory. Broad-brimmed hats covered a long, ducktail haircut at a time when military buzz-cuts were mainstream style. White Americans associated the zoot suit with criminal activity because the outfit was worn by pachuco gangs in southern California. Pachuco is a slang word that came to mean "tough guy." In the summer of 1942, the Los Angeles media gave extensive coverage to the high-profile trial of twenty-two pachucos accused of murder of a young man born in Mexico but raised in the United States. Twelve of the men were initially found guilty but an appeals court reversed the convictions, dismissing all charges. Anti-Mexican sentiment continued nonetheless.
The following summer in 1943, a minor clash between Mexican and white youths resulted in a police raid on Mexican neighborhoods. The media frenzy that followed increased anger among the general public. Race riots aimed at Mexican Americans erupted across the city on June 7, 1943. Mobs of soldiers and sailors stationed in Los Angeles during World War II joined civilians carrying sticks, clubs, and chains as they searched for zoot-suiters in the downtown area. Pulled from public facilities, the youth were stripped of their clothing, beaten, and left bleeding on the streets. The rioting spread to the suburbs and expanded to include anyone of Mexican descent. After two days, the rioting was finally stopped by police and military authorities, but not before it had spread to other Southern California communities including Long Beach, Pasadena, and San Diego. No deaths resulted but hard feelings remained.
Two years after leaving school, Chavez joined the U.S. Navy and served in the western Pacific near the end of World War II. The war had left Southern California with a severe field labor shortage. The American government worked with the Mexican government to set up the Bracero Program (see box). The program brought hundreds of thousands of guest workers into the United States to fill wartime demands for agricultural laborers. With the end of war the soldiers returned to the United States and the braceros returned to Mexico. The sacrifices that Mexican Americans made in the defense of their country in wartime left many determined to demand the protection of constitutional rights due to them as Americans in peacetime.
When Chavez returned from active military duty, he married Helen Fabela, whose farm worker family had settled in Delano, California. Chavez returned to life as a farmworker. The couple eventually settled in the East San Jose area called Sal Si Puedes (literally "get out if you can"). He found work at a lumberyard and began to look for ways to improve working conditions for the thousands who labored on farms for low wages and under severe conditions. Between 1949 and 1959, Cesar and Helen had eight children.
The Bracero Program
With much of America's working population serving in the military overseas during World War II, temporary laborers were needed to fill their places at home. Women of all races joined the work force in nontraditional jobs, such as assembly line workers in aircraft manufacturing, to meet the needs of factories in the war effort. A severe shortage of agricultural workers also occurred, leaving the nation unable to fill wartime demands for food.
The United States turned to nearby Mexico to meet its agricultural needs. The two governments formed the Bracero Program with the expectation it would be mutually beneficial to both countries because Mexico was experiencing high unemployment rates at the time. Bracero originates in the Spanish word brazo (meaning arm) and is a Mexican term that translates into English as hired hand. By the time the war ended, more than two hundred thousand braceros had participated in the international program. Like the Mexican American laborers they were replacing, the Mexican workers were welcomed into the fields, but not into American society. Braceros were subjected to exploitation despite government agreements designed to protect them.
The U.S. and Mexican governments worked together to set up the Bracero Program, which attracted more than two hundred thousand braceros by the time the war ended. The Mexican term bracero comes from the Spanish word brazo or "arm." Roughly translated into English, bracero means "hired hand." Although the governments' signed contracts to avoid exploitation of the braceros, in practice they were routinely violated and the workers were subjected to a variety of abuses.
The Delano grape boycott
In 1953, Chavez joined the Community Service Organization (CSO) to help register Mexican Americans to vote. The CSO was one of a growing number of civil rights groups that formed in the 1950s to challenge prejudice and injustice in postwar America. The association helped to improve educational opportunities for minorities and also addressed such critical problems as police brutality. Chavez began as a local volunteer and soon became a paid organizer. By 1958, he was director of the CSO. He gained the skills and acquired the contacts he needed to work with other Mexican American community activists on a larger scale.
Chavez left the CSO in 1962 when its policy board rejected his proposal to form a union of agricultural workers. That year, he joined others in forming the Farm Workers Association (FWA). Chavez, still living in Delano, traveled to migrant labor camps throughout California and Arizona, convincing workers of the need for unity. Minimal monthly dues provided workers with group health insurance, a credit union (an association that makes small loans to its members), and an advocate, or supporter, in the fields or in the courts.
The FWA was renamed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and chose Viva La Causa ("long live the cause") as its motto. Its purpose was to rally young Hispanics to the fight for equality in American society. The union's flag was a black eagle in a white circle against a field of red. The black in the logo symbolized the workers' dark position, the red illustrated the work and suffering yet to be endured, and the white represented the light of hope.
In 1965, a union of Filipino grape pickers approached Chavez and the NFWA for help. They wanted to organize a boycott (to stop buying a certain product until demands are met) against Delano grape growers because of unfair wages. The NFWA agreed. Chavez led a group of strikers who walked from Delano to the state capitol in Sacramento to deliver the union's demands for the government to take action to protect the workers. Ten thousand marchers arrived at the state capitol on Easter morning after walking for three weeks and over 200 miles. The marchers received national media coverage. The Delano Grape Strike ended successfully for workers in 1966.
The NFWA voted to merge with other farm unions to become the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, which was recognized by the national AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations). The Delano strike brought Chavez national recognition as a leader of a large, broad-based civil rights movement. He spoke out not only for economic and social justice, but also against the unpopular Vietnam War (1957–75). Chavez received public support from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968). La Causa gained momentum in the country.
Strikes, boycotts, pickets, marches, and sit-ins (to sit down and quietly refuse to leave when asked) were all political weapons Chavez employed in his nonviolent battle against racial discrimination. Inspired by Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948; see entry), who fought racial discrimination in India using nonviolent methods including fasting (to not eat or only eat very little of certain things), Chavez used fasting to call attention to his message against prejudice and encouraged followers to remember his example of nonviolence. When UFW members began talking about adopting more violent tactics during a 1968 strike in California, Chavez began a fast that lasted twenty-five days in protest. Union members agreed to renounce violence. U.S. senator Robert Kennedy (1925–1968) joined Chavez at a press conference in Delano where Chavez ended his highly publicized fast. Kennedy also lent his prestige to the La Causa movement when he went on the campaign trail for president that year. The assassinations of both King and Kennedy in 1968 divided union leadership on the issue of nonviolence. Chavez resisted pressure to embrace a militant Hispanic movement just as King had resisted the Black Power movement a decade earlier.
The political battle for the rights of workers continued. In 1970, Chavez helped negotiate an historic contract with a majority of grape producers in Delano. In 1974, Martin Luther King's widow, Coretta Scott King (1927–2006), presented Chavez with the Martin Luther King Nonviolent Peace Award in Atlanta, Georgia. That same year, Chavez and Helen, who was a big supporter of Cesar's activism, traveled to Europe in an effort to increase support among international leaders. Religion and spirituality were central to his life and his cause. Therefore, a highlight of the trip for Chavez came when he was granted a private audience with the Roman Catholic pope Paul VI (1897–1978). Finally in 1975, California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. It was the first bill to protect the right of farmworkers in the United States to act together to help themselves. It provided for government-supervised collective bargaining (negotiations between representatives of employers and workers to reach agreement on working conditions) under the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
Criticism of Chavez's authoritarian (power is centered in a single person who demands complete obedience of others) style of leadership caused internal opposition for the UFW during the 1980s. However, he continued to recruit migrant workers to the union and raise funds to ensure the union's future. During the early 1980s the state of California became less committed to enforcing the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. In response, Chavez promoted another grape boycott to protest the use of toxic pesticides in grapes. In 1988, Chavez began a fast to draw attention to the dangers of pesticides to workers in the fields and vineyards as well as to the consumers who ate them. The fast lasted for thirty-six days and left the sixty-one-year-old Chavez severely weakened.
In 1991, Chavez received Mexico's highest award, the Aguila Azteca (The Aztec Eagle). The award is presented to people of Mexican heritage who have made major contributions to society throughout the world. As head of the UFW, he continued to work for the rights of farmworkers until his death in 1993. While on union business, Chavez died in his sleep at the age of sixty-six of unidentified natural causes, not far from his birthplace in Arizona. Over fifty thousand mourners paid their last respects at a funeral mass for Chavez. Millions more witnessed it on international broadcasting networks. In death and in life, Chavez brought attention to La Causa and the need for peaceful social change.
For More Information
Bruns, Roger. Cesar Chavez: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997.
La Botz, Dan. César Chávez and La Causa. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.
Levy, Jacques E. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975.
Library of Congress. "Cesar Chavez." America's Story. http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/aa/chavez (accessed on December 11, 2006).
Tajeda-Flores, Rick. "Cesar Chavez." The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers' Struggle. PBS: F. http://www.pbs.org/itvs/fightfields/cesarchavez.html (accessed on December 11, 2006).