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Cesar Chavez was a civil rights activist and leader of the labor movement in the United States. He co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta and garnered national support for farm workers and unions. Cesar Chavez Day is a national holiday celebrated on his birthday, March 31.

Youth and Education

Cesar Estrada Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, and is named for his grandfather, Cesario.[1] He was one of five children produced by Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada, alongside brothers, Librado and Richard, and sisters, Vicki and Rita.[2] The family lived in a small adobe house stolen from them in a bad deal with a local man. Her father and the man agreed that the former would clear 80 acres of land in exchange for the man providing the deed for the 40 acres next to the Chávez home, but he sold the land to another man, Justus Jackson. A lawyer advised Chavez’s father to take a loan to buy the land, but Cesar could not pay the interest and the lawyer sold the land back to the original owner.

The injustices Cesar Chavez’s father experienced, and Cesar witnessed as a child, solidified his choice to advocate for others like his family.

The Chávez family relocated to California in 1938, bounced back to Arizona after a few months, and then permanently settled in San Jose, California in June 1939. The lived in a neighborhood, barrio in Spanish, named Sal Si Puedes, meaning “Get out if you can.” He started in local schools, but did not enjoy it. He spoke Spanish at home and they forbid it in school. He also faced many racist interactions with students and teachers, including witnessing both segregated and integrated schools. Cesar and Richard attended 37 schools in total.

Chavez’s father died, so when he finished 8th grade in 1942, he abandoned high school to become a migrant farm worker. In 1946, Chávez then entered the U.S. Navy while it was still segregated. He served for two years. In 1948, Chavez married Helen Fabela and they visited missions across California on their honeymoon. They produced eight children in total.[3]

Civil Rights Activist

Cesar E. Chavez returned to San Jose after serving and met Father Donald McDonnell, who discussed the plight of farm workers and the use of strikes. He also introduced Chavez to literature on non-violent protests, including Gandhi, St. Francis, and others. Father McDonnell introduced Chávez to Fred Ross. Ross invited Cesar to join in his Community Service Organization (CSO) and help register voters.[4] He also made speeches to gain support for workers’ rights throughout California. In 1958, he became the national director of CSO.[5]

Biography of Cesar Chavez, Labor Leader and Defender of Immigrants

Cesar Chavez left the CSO to found the National Farm Workers Association, later the United Farm Workers (UFW), with Dolores Huerta. His brother, Richard, chose the design for the UFW symbol, an eagle, and he chose black and red as their colors. The UFW had few due paying members at first. He helped support the 1966 Delano grape strike that included a 340-mile walk from Delano to Sacramento. They fought to legalize the unionization of farm workers to allow for collective bargaining. He used non-violent tactics, like striking, picketing, and boycotting, to draw attention to the farm workers requests for safer working conditions and better wages. [6]

Chavez also fought for immigrant rights through UFW. Chavez joined Dolores Huerta again to work against the Bracero Program that began in 1942 and ended in 1964. The program allowed domestic farm workers to be exploited by employers. The employers denied the farm workers any jobs and chose to employ undocumented workers for small wages. Then in the Immigration Law of 1986, UFW fought for the inclusion of an amnesty provision that granted one million migrant farm workers U.S. citizenship. [7]

Fasting for Change

Cesar fasted several times during his advocacy work. He fasted in 1968 for the first time to advocate for the use of non-violent protest. He drank only water for 25 days. He fasted again for 24 days in 1972 to prohibition of strikes and boycotts by the Arizona government.[8] [9]

Cesar E. Chavez used non-violent tactics, like fasting, to advance his causes and never showed fear for his own life.

His final fast was in 1988. This lasted 36 days, the longest fast by Chavez, and declared several reasons for why it was happening, including, “for the purification of [his] own body, mind, and soul,” “a heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all those who work beside [him] in the farm worker movement,” “an act of penance for those in positions of moral authority and for all men and women activists who know what is right and just, who know that they could and should do more, and finally as, “a declaration of non-cooperation with supermarkets who promote and sell and profit from California table grapes.” It ended on August 21, 1988, and Reverend Jesse Jackson continued the fast for three days and then passed it onto other political leaders and celebrities who supported Chavez.[10]

Death, Legacy, and Recognition

Cesar E. Chavez died in his sleep of natural causes on April 23, 1993, close to his birthplace in Yuma, Arizona. He died in the middle of defending UFW from a large lawsuit from Bruce Church, Inc., a large vegetable and lettuce production company from Salinas, California who lost money during the 1980 boycotts of lettuce in places like California and New York. Church, Inc., chose Arizona for its’s agribusiness-friendly laws. Eventually a second judgment worth millions was refused by an appeal’s court and Bruce Church, Inc., signed a contract with the UFW in May 1996.

Over 50,000 people attended his funeral on April 29, and traveled from all over the U.S. to attend.[11] Chavez was buried in the UFW headquarters in California and received fullå military honors from the U.S. Navy on the 22nd anniversary of his death, April 23, 2015.[12] U.S. President Barack Obama declared Chavez’s birthday, March 31, as a national holiday, Cesar Chavez Day, in 2008.[13]

References

Bibliography


UFW. (2016). The Story of Cesar Chavez. United Farm Workers.[6]

Footnotes

  1. UFW, 2016
  2. Quinones, S. (2011, July 28). Richard Chavez dies at 81; Brother of Cesar Chavez. Los Angeles Times.[1]
  3. UFW, 2016
  4. UFW, 2016
  5. Department of Labor. (2016, February 17). Hall of Honor Inductee: Cesar Chavez. United States Department of Labor.[2]
  6. UFW, 2016
  7. UFW. (2016). Cesar Chavez and UFW: Longtime champions of immigration reform. United Farm Workers.[3]
  8. Shaw, R. (2010). Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  9. UFW, 2016
  10. UFW, 2016
  11. UFW, 2016
  12. CBS/AP. (2015, April 23). 22 years after death, Cesar Chavez gets navy funeral honors. CBS News.[4]
  13. Alarcon, E. (2008). Barack Obama calls for National Holiday for Cesar E. Chavez. Cesar E. Chavez National Holiday.[5]

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