The story of César Estrada Chávez begins near Yuma, Arizona. César was born on March 31, 1927. He was named after his grandfather, Cesario. Regrettably, the story of César Estrada Chávez also ends near Yuma, Arizona. He passed away on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, a small village near Yuma, Arizona.
He learned about justice or rather injustice early in his life. César grew up in Arizona; the small adobe home, where César was born was swindled from them by dishonest Anglos. César’s father agreed to clear eighty acres of land and in exchange he would receive the deed to forty acres of land that adjoined the home. The agreement was broken and the land sold to a man named Justus Jackson. César’s dad went to a lawyer who advised him to borrow money and buy the land. Later when César’s father could not pay the interest on the loan the lawyer bought back the land and sold it to the original owner. César learned a lesson about injustice that he would never forget. Later, he would say, “the love for justice that is in us, is not only the best part of our being but it is also the most true to our nature.”
In 1938, he and his family moved to California. He lived in La Colonia Barrio in Oxnard for a short period, returning to Arizona several months later. They returned to California in June 1939 and this time settled in San Jose. They lived in the barrio called Sal Si Puedes -“Get Out If You Can.” César thought the only way to get out of the circle of poverty was to work his way up and send the kids to college. He and his family worked in the fields of California from Brawley to Oxnard, Atascadero, Gonzales, King City, Salinas, McFarland, Delano, Wasco, Selma, Kingsburg, and Mendota.
He did not like school as a child, probably because he spoke only Spanish at home. The teachers were mostly Anglo and only spoke English. Spanish was forbidden in school. He remembers being punished with a ruler to his knuckles for violating the rule. He also remembers that some schools were segregated and he felt that in the integrated schools he was like a monkey in a cage. He remembers having to listen to a lot of racist remarks. He remembers seeing signs that read whites only. He and his brother, Richard, attended thirty-seven schools. He felt that education had nothing to do with his farm worker/migrant way of life. In 1942 he graduated from the eighth grade. Because his father, Librado, had been in an accident and because he did not want his mother, Juana, to work in the fields, he could not to go to high school, and instead became a migrant farm worker.
While his childhood school education was not the best, later in life, education was his passion. The walls of his office in La Paz (United Farm Worker Headquarters) are lined with hundreds of books ranging from philosophy, economics, cooperatives, and unions, to biographies on Gandhi and the Kennedys’. He believed that, “The end of all education should surely be service to others,” a belief that he practiced until his untimely death.
He joined the U.S. Navy, which was then segregated, in 1946, at the age of 19, and served for two years.
In 1948 César married Helen Fabela. They honeymooned in California by visiting all the California Missions from Sonoma to San Diego (again the influence of education). They settled in Delano and started their family. First Fernando, then Sylvia, then Linda, and five more children were to follow.
Cesar returned to San Jose where he met and was influenced by Father Donald McDonnell. They talked about farm workers and strikes. César began reading about St. Francis and Gandhi and nonviolence. After Father McDonnell came another very influential person, Fred Ross.
César became an organizer for Ross’ organization, the Community Service Organization – CSO. His first task was voter registration.
The United Farm Workers Is Born
In 1962, César founded the National Farm Workers Association, later to become the United Farm Workers – the UFW. He was joined by Dolores Huerta and the union was born. That same year Richard Chávez designed the UFW Eagle and César chose the black and red colors. César told the story of the birth of the eagle. He asked Richard to design the flag, but Richard could not make an eagle that he liked. Finally, he sketched one on a piece of brown wrapping paper. He then squared off the wing edges so that the eagle would be easier for union members to draw on the handmade red flags that would give courage to the farm workers with their own powerful symbol. César made reference to the flag by stating, “A symbol is an important thing. That is why we chose an Aztec eagle. It gives pride . . . When people see it, they know it means dignity.”
“Every day in California and in other states where farm workers are organizing, César Chávez lives in their hearts. César lives wherever Americans’ he inspired work nonviolently for social change.”
Arturo Rodríguez, UFW President
For a long time in 1962, there were very few union dues paying members. By 1970 the UFW got grape growers to accept union contracts and had effectively organized most of that industry, at one point in time claiming 50,000 dues paying members. The reason was César Chávez’s tireless leadership and nonviolent tactics that included the Delano grape strike, his fasts that focused national attention on farm workers problems, and the 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966. The farm workers and supporters carried banners with the black eagle with Huelga (strike) and Viva La Causa (Long live our cause). The marchers wanted the state government to pass laws which would permit farm workers to organize into a union and allow collective bargaining agreements. César made people aware of the struggles of farm workers for better pay and safer working conditions. He succeeded through nonviolent tactics (boycotts, pickets, and strikes). César Chaávez and the union sought recognition of the importance and dignity of all farm workers.
It was the beginning of La Causa a cause that was supported by organized labor, religious groups, minorities, and students. César Chávez had the foresight to train his union workers and then to send many of them into the cities where they were to use the boycott and picket as their weapon.
César was willing to sacrifice his own life so that the union would continue and that violence was not used. César fasted many times. In 1968 César went on a water only, 25 day fast. He repeated the fast in 1972 for 24 days, and again in 1988, this time for 36 days. What motivated him to do this? He said, “Farm workers everywhere are angry and worried that we cannot win without violence. We have proved it before through persistence, hard work, faith and willingness to sacrifice. We can win and keep our own self-respect and build a great union that will secure the spirit of all people if we do it through a rededication and recommitment to the struggle for justice through nonviolence.”
Many events precipitated the fast, especially the terrible suffering of the farm workers and their children, the crushing of farm worker rights, the dangers of pesticides, and the denial of fair and free elections.
César said about the fast, “A fast is first and foremost personal. It is a fast for the purification of my own body, mind, and soul. The fast is also a heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all those who work beside me in the farm worker movement. The fast is also 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. The fast is finally a declaration of non-cooperation with supermarkets who promote and sell and profit from California table grapes.
“During the past few years I have been studying the plague of pesticides on our land and our food,” César continued “The evil is far greater than even I had thought it to be, it threatens to choke out the life of our people and also the life system that supports us all. This solution to this deadly crisis will not be found in the arrogance of the powerful, but in solidarity with the weak and helpless. I pray to God that this fast will be a preparation for a multitude of simple deeds for justice. Carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world. Together, all things are possible.”
César Chávez completed his 36-day Fast for Life on August 21, 1988. The Reverend Jesse Jackson took up where César left off, fasting on water for three days before passing on the fast to celebrities and leaders. The fast was passed to Martin Sheen, actor; the Reverend J. Lowery, President SCLC; Edward Olmos, actor; Emilio Estevez, actor; Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, Peter Chacón, legislator, Julie Carmen, actress; Danny Glover, actor; Carly Simon, singer; and Whoopi Goldberg, actress.
The Death of César Chávez
César Estrada Chávez died peacefully in his sleep on April 23, 1993 near Yuma, Arizona, a short distance from the small family farm in the Gila River Valley where he was born more than 66 years before.
The founder and president of the United Farm Workers of América, AFL-CIO was in Yuma helping UFW attorneys defend the union against a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church Inc., a giant Salinas, Calif.-based lettuce and vegetable producer. Church demanded that the farm workers pay millions of dollars in damages resulting from a UFW boycott of its lettuce during the 1980’s. Rather than bring the legal action in a state where the boycott actually took place, such as California or New York, Church “shopped around” for a friendly court in conservative, agribusiness-dominated Arizona-where there had been no boycott activity.
“César gave his last ounce of strength defending the farm workers in this case,” stated his successor, UFW President Arturo Rodríguez, who was with him in Arizona during the trial. “He died standing up for their First Amendment right to speak out for themselves. He believed in his heart that the farm workers were right in boycotting Bruce Church Inc. lettuce during the l980’s and he was determined to prove that in court.” (When the second multimillion dollar judgement for Church was later thrown out by an appeal’s court, the company signed a UFW contract in May 1996.
The Last March With César Chávez
On April 29, 1993, César Estrada Chávez was honored in death by those he led in life. More than 50,000 mourners came to honor the charismatic labor leader at the site of his first public fast in 1968 and his last in 1988, the United Farm Workers Delano Field Office at “Forty Acres.”
It was the largest funeral of any labor leader in the history of the U.S. They came in caravans from Florida to California to pay respect to a man whose strength was in his simplicity.
Farm workers, family members, friends and union staff took turns standing vigil over the plain pine coffin which held the body of César Chávez. Among the honor guard were many celebrities who had supported Chávez throughout his years of struggle to better the lot of farmworkers throughout América.
Many of the mourners had marched side by side with Chávez during his tumultuous years in the vineyards and farms of América. For the last time, they came to march by the side of the man who had taught them to stand up for their rights, through nonviolent protest and collective bargaining.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney, who celebrated the funeral mass, called Chávez “a special prophet for the worlds’ farm workers.” Pall bearers, including crews of these workers, Chávez children and grandchildren, then carried their fallen leader, resting at last, from the Memorial Park to Forty Acres.
The death of Chávez marked an era of dramatic changes in American agriculture. His contributions would be eroded, and others would have to shoulder the burden of his work. But, César Chávez, who insisted that those who labor in the earth were entitled to share fairly in the rewards of their toil, would never be forgotten.
As Luis Valdez said, “César, we have come to plant your heart like a seed . . . the farm workers shall harvest in the seed of your memory.”
Final Resting Place/Final Recognition
The body of César Chávez was taken to La Paz, the UFW’s California headquarters, by his family and UFW leadership. He was laid to rest near a bed of roses, in front of his office.
On August 8, 1994, at a White House ceremony, Helen Chávez, César’s widow, accepted the Medal of Freedom for her late husband from President Clinton. In the citation accompanying América’s highest civilian honor which was awarded posthumously, the President lauded Chávez for having “faced formidable, often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence.
“And he was victorious. César Chávez left our world better than he found it, and his legacy inspires us still. He was for his own people a Moses figure,” the President declared. “The farm workers who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency pinned their hopes on this remarkable man who, with faith and discipline, soft spoken humility and amazing inner strength, led a very courageous life”
The citation accompanying the award noted how Chavez was a farm worker from childhood who “possessed a deep personal understanding of the plight of migrant workers, and he labored all his years to lift their lives.” During his lifetime, Chávez never earned more than $5,000 a year. The late Senator Robert Kennedy called him “one of the heroic figures of our time.”
Chávez’s successor, UFW President Arturo Rodríguez, thanked the president on behalf of the United Farm Workers and said, “Every day in California and in other states where farm workers are organizing, César Chávez lives in their hearts. César lives wherever Americans’ he inspired work nonviolently for social change.”
United Farm Workers (ufw.org).
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