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Cesar Chavez Day

Dolore Huerta admiring an mural of Cesar Chavez
Dolore Huerta admiring an mural of Cesar Chavez / Credit: San Jose State University

Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist. He was born on March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, and raised in a “typical extended Mexican family.” When he was 11 years old, his family lost their farm, an experience that made him learn a lesson about injustice. His family then became migrant farmworkers and moved to California.

As a child, he did not enjoy school, merely because Spanish, the language he spoke at home, was prohibited in school, and he faced segregation. He studied until eighth grade and began working as a farmworker afterward. Working on the farms was not an easy task. Farmworkers were subject to unfair wages for long work hours, primitive living conditions, poor sanitation, and were not treated with dignity and respect.

In 1952, Cesar began his career as a community organizer in Fred Ross’s organization, the Community Service Organization. In his time working for this organization, he coordinated voter registration for the Latino community. But this was not his ultimate goal in aiding farmworkers.

In 1962, along with Dolores Huerta, labor leader, and civil rights activist, they founded the National Farmworkers Association, which is now known as the United Farm Workers (UFW). Although it did not have many members at its beginning, this organization, created to help improve the working conditions of farmworkers, was joined by African Americans, Filipinos, white Americans, Mexican Americans, and Mexicans.

His most renowned protest was the Delano grape strike that he led along with Larry Itliong, a Filipino-American labor organizer, Latino and Filipino workers. This strike, which lasted from 1965 to 1970, consisted of boycotting grapes and other products to pressure farm growers to bargain union contracts. Eventually, millions of people throughout the country helped their movement, La Causa (the cause).

Chavez followed Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King’s practices of militant nonviolence. That is why, after some strikers tried to include violence in their protests in 1968, Cesar went on a 25- day fast for nonviolence, only drinking water. His fast along with the efforts from strikers was successful. By 1970, grape growers signed their first union contracts that granted workers better wages, benefits, and protections. In the following years, Cesar did two other fasts in form of nonviolent protests. He had his second 25-day fast in 1972 in Phoenix, Arizona, after the state made a punitive law prohibiting farmworkers to organize. Also, he had a 36-day fast in Delano, California in 1988, focusing public attention on the pesticide poisoning of farmworkers and their families.

For the rest of his life, Cesar continued to protest for the rights of farmworkers and gathered support from ordinary Americans. Cesar died on April 23, 1993, at the age of sixty-six in San Luis, Arizona. His funeral was the largest of any labor leader in the history of the U.S. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1994. His legacy lives with his motto “¡Si se puede!” (Yes, it can be done!).

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