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César E. Chávez
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About César E. Chávez
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About César E. Chávez

Sponsored by the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors

Cesar Chavez

Photographer: George Rodriguez

Table of Contents

Biography

The man who founded the United Farm Workers Union, who fought for the rights of some of the most powerless members of American society, and inspired thousands of people to better their own lives and the lives of those around them was not marked for greatness when he was born in Yuma, Arizona in 1927 on his family's farm. The Chávez family eked out a living on their small farm, but as the Great Depression wore on through the 1930s they could no longer make ends meet and eventually lost their farm and were forced to become migrant farm workers, following the harvest through California and Arizona. Chávez attended over 30 different schools before his formal education ended after the seventh grade. His education in the ways of being a migrant worker would continue, however.

The Chávez family, like all migrant farm workers at that time, worked very hard picking fruits and vegetables for a pittance. Living conditions were harsh, many farm workers couldn't afford to rent a place in the miserable shacks near the fields and were forced to sleep in their cars. Farm owners would sometimes refuse to pay the workers what they were owed for their work or would charge them for expenses as petty as the water they drank while they worked in the field. César escaped this life temporarily in 1944, when at age 17 he joined the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II. Returning to California in 1946, Chávez married Helen Fabela and they made their home in Delano, a small town in the Central Valley. He resumed his life as a farm worker, picking grapes and cotton and as he worked he realized that nothing had changed for those in the fields since the war had ended, and nothing would change unless farm workers won for themselves the rights other workers enjoyed. He resolved to work to better the conditions of farm workers like himself.

In 1952, Chávez joined the Community Service Organization (CSO) and became a community organizer, sometimes helping fellow farm workers with their everyday problems, encouraging them to register to vote or to become U.S. citizens. He tried to convince the CSO leadership that farm workers needed a union devoted to their interests. When the leadership refused, he resigned from the CSO, took his life savings of $1,200 and formed the National Farm Workers Association, the precursor of the United Farm Workers union (UFW). The first years of the union's existence were a struggle to survive. Chávez traveled to migrant labor camps all over California and Arizona, discussing with farm workers the need for a union and recruiting organizers to help him do what many labor leaders thought was impossible. Past attempts to form a labor union of farm workers had been defeated by violent reprisals by farm owners and law enforcement against organizers and union members. The migrant workforce was scared, divided, and easily manipulated by farm owners and labor contractors, and a lack of connection between well meaning labor organizers and the migrant workers had also doomed previous organizing efforts.

One of Chávez's great insights was that a successful union of farm workers had to be one they formed themselves. Much of his time was spent recruiting, training, and inspiring farm workers to take on the monumental task of forming a union, negotiating contracts with hostile growers and withstanding the sometimes violent reactions of the communities that hated the idea of a farm workers union and hated the man who led them. "Si se pueda!" ("Yes We Can!") was a rallying cry of the UFW, and in part it meant that the people in the union, whom no one thought were capable of doing anything more than picking fruit and vegetables, could indeed fight for their rights as workers and human beings and succeed. Again and again one reads testimonials by former farm workers whose potential was recognized by Chávez (often even before these people saw it in themselves) and whose work for the UFW opened new vistas in their lives, changing how they thought of themselves and what they were capable of.

In 1965 the UFW reached a turning point. Migrant grape pickers had gone out on strike, demanding a raise from the dollar an hour they were paid. More and more workers joined the Huelga (Spanish for "strike"), even in the face of threats from farm owners and labor contractors. Chávez worked tirelessly in support of the strike. In March, 1966 he led a group of strikers on a 250 mile march from Delano to Sacramento, to take the union's demands to the state government and to bring national attention to the cause of the UFW. By the time the group arrived in Sacramento, one of the large Delano grape growers had settled with the union, signing a contract guaranteeing better pay and working conditions for migrant workers. The battle for the rights of the workers would continue. In 1968, to draw more attention to the strike, Chávez began a 25 day hunger strike, organized more rallies and demonstrations and called for a national boycott of grapes. By 1970, the grape growers had agreed to a contract with the UFW which gave the workers health care benefits and a raise in pay. A similar call for a boycott of lettuce was less successful, but in 1975 Governor Jerry Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act-the first bill of rights for farm workers ever passed in the United States. It gave workers the right to vote on which union would represent them for the first time. The UFW easily defeated the Teamsters in an election to represent the lettuce pickers.

César E. Chávez continued to fight for the rights of farm workers as head of the UFW until his death in 1993. Over 50,000 mourners came to pay their respects to the humble man from Delano whose simple, humble manner belied a man of iron principles whose commitment to social justice was absolute and whose efforts to better the lives of his fellow men made him, in the words of Robert F. Kennedy, "One of the heroic figures of our time." He was awarded posthumously the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Clinton in 1994.

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Precepts of César E. Chávez

Perseverence
Many times the task of organizing farm workers seemed like a hopeless one. There were many setbacks, but Chávez never wavered in his belief that what he was doing was right and never stopped working towards his goal of bettering the lives of migrant workers. He once compared organizing to harvesting grapes-concentrate on one bunch at a time and eventually the whole vineyard will be harvested.
Humility
For César E. Chávez, being humble didn't mean being passive, it meant that he never felt the need to deny his roots. He was a farm worker, the son of farm workers and even though he became world famous he lived as simply as a farm worker, never earning more than $6,000 a year.
Non-Violence
Chávez embraced the ideals of Mohandas Gandhi, he never saw violence as the solution to any problem. He said, "I am convinced that the truest act of courage...is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice."
Foster Hope
To act with courage one first needs hope. So much of what Chávez and the UFW were able to achieve was due to his ability to instill the hope in people that by taking control of their own lives they were taking the first step in bettering them. In one speech before a group of farm workers he proclaimed, "It [the poor conditions and low pay suffered by farm workers] is your fault. You let them do it to you. And only you can change what is happening to you. You-we-have that power. Each of us has the power to control our lives. When we take that power, we can improve our living and working conditions."
Fight For Justice
Chávez recognized that the battle for the rights of farm workers was more than a simple labor dispute, that ultimately it was a fight to secure basic human rights for those who toiled in the fields. He also recognized that it was hopeless to wait passively for things to improve without the impetus of people willing to stand up and work for justice. In a 1989 speech he said, "The times we face truly call for all of us to do more to stop this evil in our midst. The answer lies with you and me. It is with all men and women who share the suffering and yearn with us for a better world. Our cause goes on in hundreds of distant places. It multiplies among thousands and then millions of caring people who heed through a multitude of simple deeds the commandment set out in the book of the Prophet Micah, in the Old Testament: 'What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?'

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Chronology

1927, March 31
Césario Estrada Chávez is born on the small farm near Yuma, Ariz. that his grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s.
1937
After Ceaacute;sar's father, Librado, is forced from his farm, the Chávez family becomes migrant workers first working in Oxnard, California.
1942
César quits school after the eighth grade and works in the fields full time to help support his family.
1944
He joins the U.S. Navy during World War II and serves in the western Pacific. Just before shipping out to the Pacific, César is arrested in a segregated Delano, Calif. movie theater for sitting in the "whites only" section.
1948
César marries Helen Fabela. They eventually have eight children.
Late 1940s
He begins studying the social teachings of the Catholic Church.
1952
Community organizer Fred Ross discovers the young farm worker laboring in apricot orchards outside San Jose, Calif., and recruits him into the Community Service Organization (CSO).
1952-1962
Together with Fred Ross, César organizers 22 CSO chapters across California in the 1950s. Under César's leadership, CSO becomes the most militant and effective Latino civil rights group of its day. It helps Latinos become citizens, registers them to vote, battles police brutality and presses for paved streets and other barrio improvements.
1962, March 31
On his birthday, César resigns from CSO, moves his wife and eight small children to Delano and dedicates himself full-time to organizing farm workers.
1962, Sept. 30
The first convention of César's National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) is convened in Fresno, Calif.
1962-1965
Often baby-sitting his youngest children as he drives to dozens of farm worker towns, César painstakingly builds up the membership of his infant union.
1965, Sept. 16
On Mexican Independence Day, César's NFWA, with 1,200-member families, votes to join a strike against Delano-area grape growers already begun that month by the mostly Filipino American members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (AWOC). Thus begins the five-year Delano Grape Strike.
March-April 1966
César and a band of strikers embark upon a 340-mile Peregrinacion (or Pilgrimage) from Delano to the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento to draw national attention to the suffering of farm workers. During the march and after a four-month boycott, Schenley Vineyards negotiates an agreement with NFWA--the first genuine union contract between a grower and farm workers' union in U.S. history.
Spring-summer 1966
A boycott of the struck DiGiorgio Fruit Corp. forces the giant grape grower to agree to an election among its workers. The company brings in the Teamsters Union to oppose César's NFWA. The NFWA and the Filipino American AWOC merge to form the United Farm Workers and the union affiliates with the AFL-CIO, the national labor federation. DiGiorgio workers vote for the UFW.
1967
The UFW strikes the Giumarra Vineyards Corp., California's largest table grape grower. In response to a UFW boycott, other grape growers allow Giumarra to use their labels. So the UFW begins a boycott of all California table grapes. Meanwhile, strikes continue against grape growers in the state.
1967-1970
Hundreds of grape strikers fan out across North America to organize an international grape boycott. Millions of Americans rally to La Causa, the farm workers' cause.
February-March 1968
César fasts for 25 days to rededicate his movement to nonviolence. U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy joins 8,000 farm workers and supporters at a mass where César breaks his fast, calling the weakened farm labor leader "one of the heroic figures of our time."
Spring-summer 1970
As the boycott continues picking up steam, most California table grape growers sign UFW contracts.
Summer 1970
To keep the UFW out of California lettuce and vegetable fields, most Salinas Valley growers signed contracts with the Teamsters Union. Some 10,000 Central Coast farm workers respond by walking out on strike. César calls for a nationwide boycott of lettuce.
1970, Dec. 10-24
César is jailed in Salinas, Calif. for refusing to obey a court order to stop the boycott against Bud Antle lettuce. Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert Kennedy, visit César in jail.
1971
The UFW moves from Delano to its new headquarters at La Paz in Keene, Calif., southeast of Bakersfield. With table and wine grape contracts, and some agreements covering vegetable workers, UFW membership grows to around 80,000.
1972
The UFW is chartered as an independent affiliate by the AFL-CIO; it becomes the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW).
1972, May 11-June 4
César fasts for 25 days in Phoenix over a just-passed Arizona law banning the right of farm workers to strike or boycott.
Spring-summer 1973
When the UFW's three-year table grape contracts came up for renewal, the growers instead signed contracts with the Teamsters without an election or any representation procedure. That sparks a bitter three-month strike by grape workers in California's Coachella and San Joaquin valleys. Thousands of strikers are arrested for violating anti-picketing injunctions, hundreds are beaten, dozens are shot and two are murdered. In response to the violence, César calls off the strike and begins a second grape boycott.
1973-1975
According to a nationwide 1975 Louis Harris poll, 17 million Americans are boycotting grapes. Many are also boycotting lettuce and Gallo wine after winery workers strike the mammoth Modesto, Calif.-based producer.
June 1975
After Jerry Brown becomes governor, the boycott convinces growers to agree to a state law guaranteeing California farm workers the right to organize and bargain with their employers. César gets the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act through the state Legislature.
September 1975-January 1976
Hundreds of elections are held. The UFW wins the majority of the elections in which it participates. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), which enforces the law, briefly shuts down after running out of money and pro-grower lawmakers refuse to approve an emergency appropriation.
Mid-to-late 1970s
The UFW continues winning elections and signing contracts with growers. In 1977, the Teamsters Union signs a "jurisdictional" agreement with the UFW and agrees to leave the fields. In 1978, the UFW calls off its boycotts of grapes, lettuce and Gallo wine.
January-October 1979
In a bid to win decent wages and benefits, the UFW strikes several major lettuce and vegetable growers up and down the state. Rufino Contreras, 27-year old striker, is shot to death in an Imperial Valley lettuce field by grower foremen.
September 1979
After a strike and boycott, the UFW wins its demands for a significant pay raise and other contract improvements from Sun Harvest, the nation's largest lettuce producer. Other growers also soon settle.
Early 1980s
With election victories and contract negotiations, the number of farm workers protected by UFW contracts grows to about 45,000.
1982
Republican George Deukmejian is elected California governor with $1 million in grower campaign contributions.
1983-1990
Deukmejian begins shutting down enforcement of the state's historic farm labor law. Thousands of farm workers lose their UFW contracts. Many are fired and blacklisted. Fresno-area dairy worker Rene Lopez, 19, is shot to death by grower agents after voting in a 1983 union election. César declares a third grape boycott in 1984.
1986
César kicks off the "Wrath of Grapes" campaign to draw public attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children.
July-August 1988
At age 61, Chávez conducts his last--and longest--public fast for 36 days in Delano to call attention to farm workers and their children stricken by pesticides.
Late 1980s-early 1990s
After recovering from his fast, César continues pressing the grape boycott and aiding farm workers who wish to organize.
Spring-Summer 1992
Working with UFW First Vice President Arturo Rodriguez, César leads vineyard walkouts in the Coachella and San Joaquin valleys. As a result, grape workers win their first industry-wide pay hike in eight years.
1993, April 23
César Chávez dies peacefully in his sleep at the modest home of a retired San Luis, Ariz. farm worker while defending the UFW against a multi-million dollar lawsuit brought against the union by a large vegetable grower.
1993, April 29
40,000 mourners march behind César's plain pine casket during funeral services in Delano.
May 1993
Veteran UFW organizer Arturo Rodriguez succeeds César as union president.
March-April 1994
On the first anniversary of César's passing, Arturo Rodriguez leads a 343-mile march retracing César's historic 1966 trek from Delano to Sacramento. Some 17,000 farm workers and supporters gather on the state Capitol steps to help kick off a new UFW field organizing and contract negotiating campaign.
1994, August 8
President Bill Clinton posthumously presents the Medal of Freedom--America's highest civilian honor--to César Chávez. His widow, Helen, receives the medal during a White House ceremony.
1994-2000
Since the new UFW organizing drive began in 1994, farm workers vote for the UFW in 18 straight union elections and the UFW signs 24 new--or first-time--agreements with growers. UFW membership rises from around 20,000 in 1993 to more than 27,000. The César Chávez-founded union organizes and bargains on behalf of major rose, mushroom, strawberry, wine grape and lettuce and vegetable workers in California, Florida and Washington state.
2003
The U.S. Postal Service issues a commemorative stamp with César Chávez's image.

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Prayer of the Farm Workers' Struggle

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people's plight.
Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.
Help me take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.
Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience;
So that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
So that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.
Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world.
Amen

Written by César E. Chávez, UFW Founder (1927-1993)
Copyright César E. Chávez Foundation

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United Farm Workers Flag

In 1962 César asked his cousin, Manuel, to design a flag. Cásar wanted an Aztec eagle on the flag, but Manuel could not make an eagle that he liked. After several attempts, Manuel 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 their handmade red flags. The symbol of the eagle would give courage to the farm workers. 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." The flag was unveiled at the first mass meeting of the newly formed union.

The symbolism of the flag:

  • The black eagle signifies the dark situation of the farm worker. The Aztec eagle is an historic symbol for the people of Mexico. The UFW incorporated the Aztec eagle into its design in order to show the connection the union had to migrant workers of Mexican-American descent, though not all UFW workers were Mexican-American.
  • The white circle signified hope and aspirations.
  • The red background stood for the hard work and sacrifice that the union members would have to give.

The UFW also adopted an official motto, "Viva la Causa" (Long Live Our Cause).

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