Cesar Chavez Biography: Civil Rights Activist, Folk Hero

Cesar Chavez and Robert Kennedy Break Bread
Cesar Chavez and Robert Kennedy Break Bread. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Cesar Chavez (1927 to 1993) was an iconic Mexican American labor organizer, civil rights activist, and folk hero who dedicated his life to improving the pay and working conditions of farm workers. Originally a struggling Southern California field worker himself, Chavez, along with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the United Farm Workers union (UFW) in 1962. With the unexpected success of the UFW, Chavez gained the support of the larger American labor movement, helping unions far beyond California recruit much-needed Hispanic members. His aggressive, yet strictly non-violent approach to social activism helped the cause of the farm workers’ movement gain support from the public nationwide.

Fast Facts: Cesar Chavez

  • Full Name: Cesar Estrada Chavez
  • Known for: Labor union organizer and leader, Civil rights activist, Champion of non-violent social activism
  • Born: on March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Arizona
  • Died: April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona
  • Parents: Librado Chavez and Juana Estrada
  • Education: Left school in seventh grade
  • Key Accomplishments: Co-founded the United Farm Workers’ Union (1962), Instrumental in passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (1975), Instrumental in the inclusion of amnesty provisions in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
  • Major Awards and Honors: Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged (1973), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994), California Hall of Fame (2006)
  • Spouse: Helen Fabela (married 1948)
  • Children: Eight; three sons and five daughters
  • Notable Quotation: “There’s no turning back … We will win. We are winning because ours is a revolution of mind and heart.”

Long embraced as a folk hero by the Latino community, Chavez remains an iconic figure among labor organizers, civil rights leaders, and Hispanic empowerment groups. Many schools, parks, and streets are named for him, and his birthday, March 31, is a federal holiday observed in California, Texas, and other states. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama used Chavez’s famous rallying cry of “Sí, se puede!”—Spanish for, “Yes, we can!”—as his slogan. In 1994, a year after his death, Chavez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

Early Life

Cesar Estrada Chavez was born near Yuma, Arizona, on March 31, 1927. The son of Librado Chavez and Juana Estrada, he had two brothers, Richard and Librado, and two sisters, Rita and Vicki. After losing their grocery store, ranch, and small adobe house during the Great Depression, the family moved to California in 1938, looking for work as migrant farm workers. In June 1939, the family moved to a small Mexican American settlement near San Jose, prophetically called Sal Si Puedes—Spanish for “Get Out If You Can.”

While chasing the harvest around California, Chavez and his family rarely lived in one place for more than a few months. Picking peas and lettuce in the winter, cherries, and beans in the spring, corn, and grapes in the summer, and cotton in the fall, the family dealt with the hardships, low pay, social discrimination, and poor working conditions commonly faced by migrant farm workers at the time.

Not wanting his mother to have to work in the fields, Chavez dropped out of school to become a full-time farm worker in 1942, never completing the seventh grade. Despite his lack of formal education, Chavez read extensively on philosophy, history, economics, and organized labor, once commenting, “The end of all education should surely be service to others.”

From 1946 to 1948, Chavez served in the United States Navy. Though he had hoped to learn skills in the Navy that would help him advance in civilian life, he called his Navy tour, “the two worst years of my life.”

Activism, the United Farm Workers Union

After completing his military duty, Chavez worked the fields until 1952, when he went to work as an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a San Jose-based Latino civil rights group. With getting Mexican Americans registered to vote as his first task, he traveled throughout California delivering speeches demanding fair pay and better working conditions for farm workers. By 1958, he had become national director of the CSO. It was during his time with the CSO that Chavez studied St. Francis and Gandhi, deciding to adopt their methods of nonviolent activism.

Chavez left the CSO in 1962 to partner with labor leader Dolores Huerta to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), later renamed the United Farm Workers (UFW).

During its early years, the new union managed to recruit only a few members. That began to change in September 1965, when Chavez and the UFW added their support to the Filipino American farm workers’ Delano, California grape strike demanding higher wages for grape field workers. In December 1965, Chavez, along with United Automobile Workers union president Walter Reuther, led California grape workers on a historic 340-mile protest march from Delano to Sacramento. In March 1966, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor responded by holding hearings in Sacramento, during which Sen. Robert F. Kennedy expressed his support for the striking farm workers. During the grape strike and the Delano to Sacramento protest march, the UFW grew to over 50,000 dues-paying members. Chavez’s efforts in the grape march spurred similar strikes and marches by farm workers from Texas to Wisconsin and Ohio during 1966 and 1967.

During the early 1970s, the UFW organized the largest farm worker strike in U.S. history—the 1970 Salad Bowl strike. During the series of strikes and boycotts, lettuce growers reportedly lost nearly $500,000 a day as the shipment of fresh lettuce nationwide virtually ceased. Chavez, as the UFW organizer, was arrested and jailed for refusing to obey a California state court order to stop the strike and boycott. During his 13 days in a Salinas city jail, Chavez was visited by farm worker movement supporters including Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete Rafer Johnson, Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert Kennedy.

Along with strikes and boycotts, Chavez undertook a number of hunger strikes he called “spiritual fasts” intended to draw public attention to the farm workers’ cause. During his last such strike in 1988, Chavez fasted for 35 days, losing 30 pounds, and suffering health problems believed to have contributed to his death in 1993.

Chavez on Mexican Immigration

Chavez and the UFW opposed the Bracero Program, a U.S. government-sponsored program that recruited millions of Mexican citizens to enter the U.S. as temporary farms workers from 1942 to 1964. While the program provided needed labor during World War II, Chavez and Dolores Huerta felt that with the War long-past, the program exploited the migrant Mexican workers while denying Mexican American workers a chance to find jobs. Chavez spoke out against the fact that many Bracero workers faced unfairly low pay, racial discrimination, and brutal working conditions, they could not protest their treatment out of fear of being easily replaced. The efforts of Chavez, Huerta, and their UFW contributed to Congress’ decision to end the Bracero Program in 1964.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chavez organized marches throughout California protesting growers’ use of undocumented immigrant workers as strikebreakers. The UFW directed its members to report undocumented immigrants to U.S. authorities, and in 1973, set up a “wet line” along the Mexican border to prevent Mexican citizens from entering the United States illegally. 

However, the UFW would later become one of the first labor unions to oppose government imposed sanctions against growers who hired undocumented immigrants. During the 1980s, Chavez played a key role in getting Congress to include amnesty provisions for undocumented immigrants in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. These provisions allowed undocumented immigrants who had entered the U.S. before January 1, 1982, and met other requirements to remain in the United States as legal permanent residents.  

Legislative Efforts

When California elected pro-labor Jerry Brown as governor in 1974, Chavez saw a chance to achieve the UFW’s goals at the legislative level. When Brown’s support of migrant farm workers seemed to cool after he took office in 1975, Chavez organized a 110-mile march from San Francisco to Modesto. While only a few hundred UFW leaders and protestors left San Francisco on February 22, more than 15,000 people had joined the march by the time it reached Modesto on March 1. The size and media coverage of the Modesto march convinced Brown and several state legislators that the UFW still had significant public support and political clout. In June 1975, California farm workers, at last, won collective bargaining rights when Governor Brown signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA).

By 1980, Chavez’s peaceful brand of activism had forced growers in California, Texas, and Florida to recognize the UFW as the sole collective bargaining agent for more than 50,000 farm workers.

UFW Suffers Downturns

Despite the passage of the ALRA, the UFW quickly lost momentum. The union steadily lost the more than 140 labor contracts it held with growers as they learned how to fight the ALRA in court. In addition, a series of internal problems and personal conflicts over union policy during the early 1980s resulted in many key UFW employees either quitting or being fired.

While Chavez’s status as a revered hero to the Latino community and farmworkers everywhere was never challenged, the UFW’s membership continued to fall, dropping to fewer than 20,000 members by 1992.

Marriage and Personal Life

After he returned from the Navy in 1948, Chavez married Helen Fabela, his sweetheart since high school. The couple settled in Delano, California, where they had eight children.

A devout Catholic, Chavez often cited his faith as influencing both his non-violent brand of social activism and his personal outlook. As a believer in animal rights and the health benefits of a meatless diet, he was known to be a meticulous vegan.

Death

Chavez died at age 66 of natural causes on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona, while visiting the home of his longtime friend and former farm worker Dofla Maria Hau. He had traveled to Arizona to testify in a court hearing dealing with a 17-year-old lawsuit against the UFW filed by an agribusiness firm that, ironically, owned the land Chavez’s family had once farmed.

Chavez is buried in the garden of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California. His ever-present black nylon UFW union jacket is displayed in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. On April 23, 2015, the 22nd anniversary of his death, he was given full graveside honors from the U.S. Navy.

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