How César Chávez changed the labor movement—and became an icon

The civil rights leader spent his life advocating for farm workers, drawing on the peaceful tactics used by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi.
I am proud to share that I marched behind him on 15 September 1968.

BY ALLIE YANG – 31 March – National Geographic

“César Estrada Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, on a small family homestead outside Yuma, Arizona. Over the next six decades, he went from back-breaking work in California’s fields to national fame, fighting for the rights of millions of farm workers.

Though he became an icon for Mexican Americans, he saw power in uniting people of all races. Drawing from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Chávez preached nonviolence and used striking, boycotting, and fasting to achieve farm workers’ goals.

Today, his life is celebrated with a commemorative federal holiday on his birthday, March 31. He’s so beloved in California and the Arizona cities of Phoenix and Tucson that offices and schools are closed on the holiday. The union he founded, United Farm Workers (UFW) continues his work, advocating for heat regulations, voting rights, and fighting discrimination.

Early life

Chávez, a first-generation Mexican American, was heavily influenced by the values of his family. His father gave away much of the family income to help others, while his mother pledged to never turn anyone away for food. Chávez’s grandmother “Mama Tella” also instilled in him a strong sense of faith.

When he was 10, he and his family were evicted from their Arizona home. They journeyed to California, where they became some of the state’s 250,000 migrant workers. The work was grueling and required hard labor in the sun for minimal wages.

As a teen, he lived in migrant camps that often lacked indoor plumbing, had little electricity, and offered little protection from the elements. Often, workers were also required to pay their employers high fees for housing, food, and other supplies.

Like many other Mexican American men seeking a different life, Chávez joined the Navy when he was 17, and served for two years during World War II before rejoining his family in the fields. In 1948, Chávez married Helen Fabela, and together they had eight children.

Advocating for workers’ rights

From 1952 to 1962, Chávez worked with the Community Service Organization (CSO), whose mission was to train Latino community leaders. In 1958, the group organized a sit-down strike in the fields of Oxnard, California, west of Los Angeles. Chávez coordinated boycotts and encouraged workers to keep meticulous records and file formal complaints with the government. It was a pivotal two years in which he learned how to organize.

Chávez’s (fourth from the right) longest march was known as the Thousand Mile March: a 59-day trek in 1975 from the Mexican border at San Ysidro to Salinas, then from Sacramento south to Keene. Its mission was to educate farm workers on their newly-won rights.

CSO is also where Chávez also met Dolores Huerta, who became a lifelong friend and ally in his fight for workers’ rights. Over their 30 years working together, she became a force behind the scenes as well as an outspoken leader and organizer. She was involved in everything from legislative action and writing speeches, to managing the union’s daily operations. Huerta also coined the motto most associated with Chávez and UFW—“Sí se puede.”

In 1962, Chávez and Huerta established the National Farm Workers Association, now known as United Farm Workers (UFW). 

Becoming an American icon

The organization launched to national prominence in 1965 with the Delano Grape Strike. Thousands of workers in the farming town northwest of Bakersfield went on strike to demand a 15-cent hourly raise (from $1.25 to $1.40), and a 15-cent increase earned for each box of grapes packed ($0.10 to $0.25).

To break up the strikes, companies attempted to intimidate demonstrators by spraying chemicals on them, and threatening them with guns and dogs. Inspired by Gandhi and King, Chávez urged followers to not retaliate.

Attention to the strike snowballed and a national TV special, “The Harvest of Shame,” exposed the conditions workers were subjected to. Soon, reporters were coming to Delano to speak with Chávez. But an agreement between growers and the union was still out of reach.

Chávez meets with supporters in Pittsburgh in 1976.PHOTOGRAPH BY BARBARA FREEMAN, GETTY IMAGES

In March 1966, Chávez began a march from Delano to Sacramento to get the governor’s support. He saw it as a pilgrimage, and held mass every morning on the journey. The striking workers passed by more than 50 towns and cities, gathering supporters along the way until the crowd numbered in the thousands. Before they reached their destination, the head of one grower’s association called to concede to the union’s demands. It was the first union contract between growers and a farm workers’ union in U.S. history.

Fasting and end of life

Despite the success of the march, many growers still refused to negotiate with the union. As frustration built among its members, talks of violence bubbled up. In February 1968, Chávez announced he would fast to rededicate the movement to nonviolence. 

Inspired by Gandhi, Chávez saw fasting as a powerful, nonviolent way to overcome personal weakness and garner support. So for 25 days, he only drank water. Chávez lost 35 pounds during the fast, and doctors worried for his life, but hundreds, then thousands, came to visit and offer their support. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a letter of encouragement and Robert Kennedy came to the mass marking the end of the fast.

By 1969, grapes had become a symbol of farm worker exploitation, and Chávez was at the center of the story, even appearing on the cover of Time in July of that year. Boycotts became so widespread that millions of pounds of grapes were left to rot unpurchased. By 1970, the UFW got grape growers to accept union contracts and had effectively organized most of the industry.

UFW continued to make strides through the decades that followed, outlawing the short handled hoe, which devastated workers’ backs, and speaking out about the effects of pesticides on workers’ health.

Chávez was still fighting against pesticide use when he died of natural causes in April 1993 at age 66, not far from where he was born in Arizona. Fifty thousand people came to his funeral in Delano, California, and in 1994, his wife accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on his behalf.”

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