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Cesar Chávez: Simple Man, People’s Hero
Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997.
By Jessica Nevarez, Laura Jasso, Tania Ugarte and Oscar Estrada
He had attended 30 schools by the time he was 15, dropping out to help support his family. Self-educated, he read the Bible and Mahatma Gandhi's biography. He led thousands of workers to fight non-violently against injustice in America's fields. He met presidents and the pope in his blue jeans.
Image caption: Border Union Leader Carlos Marentes meets Cesar Chávez in March 1993. Photo courtesy of Carlos Marentes and Claudia Moreno
A quiet, unassuming, almost shy man, Cesar Chávez has become known as the people's hero, a man who fought for the rights of the migrant farm worker all his life, who gave dignity and respect to workers and jobs that produce the bountiful fruits and vegetables that supply American tables.
Chávez was named for his grandfather, Cesario, known affectionately as "Papa Chayo," who crossed the Mexican border into the U.S. in the 1880s to escape virtual slavery by Mexican ranchers. In El Paso, the elder Chávez found work on the railroad and in the fields but settled his family further west in Yuma, Arizona. His son Librado worked on the family farm with the rest of the family until he married Juana Estrada in 1924 when he was 38.
Cesario Estrada Chávez, the couple's first son and second of six children, was born Easter Sunday, March 31, 1927, shortly before the onset of one of the hardest times for most Americans -- the Great Depression. Unable to pay taxes on his farm, Librado Chávez lost it and moved his family back to his father's farm. After this farm, too, was lost, the Chávezes became part of hundreds of thousands of other Americans who had lost their land to the Depression and drought and were condemned to the life of the migrant worker. The Chávezes, also like many families, traveled to California where they heard work was available.
John Gregory Dunne's book on Cesar Chávez recalls the young boy's memories of his childhood and youth. Cesar walked barefoot to school in the mud, picked wild mustard greens in the canals to ward off starvation, collected tinfoil from cigarette packages to sell to a junk dealer for money toward a pair of shoes or a shirt. His parents rose before dawn during the Depression to pick peas all day in the fields and then did not earn the 70 cents their transportation had cost. The family often had to live in grim labor camps with one rest room for the entire camp and no water, plumbing or electricity.
The Chávez family sometimes lived under bridges which sheltered them from cold and rain and picked wine grapes seven days a week only to have contractors disappear with their pay. As hard as life was, Chávez's mother taught her family a strong religious faith and guided them with two principles: the duty to help the poor and to turn the other cheek when attacked.
By 1939, a union began organizing workers in the dried fruit industry, and Cesar Chávez's father and uncle became members, but the union died after its first strike failed. His life as a migrant worker and these early union activities were to motivate the young Cesar Chávez to become an active union leader and represent other field workers. After serving in the navy during World War II, Chávez returned to migrant farm work, where he met his future wife, Helena Fabela.
By the early 1950s, Cesar Chávez had been hired by the Community Service Organization (CSO), headed by Fred Ross, which helped the poor by educating them to solve their own social and economic problems. The CSO helped register migrants to vote and held meetings to motivate farm workers to learn English. He encouraged these workers to vote in order to influence politics. Chávez worked for eight years with the CSO and served as director but resigned to focus on the problems of farm workers, whose life had not improved.
In 1962, Chávez, his brother Richard and their cousin Manuel Chávez, along with CSO workers Dolores Huerta, Gil Padilla and Fred Ross, Cesar's adviser and friend, organized a convention of farm workers and supporters in Fresno, California, forming a new union. the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). The union unveiled its red, black and white flag featuring the eagle as a sign of unity between Mexico and the U.S. The leaders were committed to building a union that could take away the absolute power from the growers.
By 1964, the union had 1,000 members. It began its first strike against California's grape growers in 1965, a strike that would last five years and begin a national boycott of table grapes. On Easter Sunday in 1966, Chávez led a 250-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, greeting 10,000 supporters along the way. Although final settlement with grape growers would not come for several years, the union had settled with Schenley Industries, providing the first contract for farm workers in American history. "Viva La Causa!" Chávez cried in celebration. "Long Live the Cause! " This short but effective phrase would come to symbolize the efforts of the farm workers union.
The NFWA merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and became the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. In 1968, Chávez began his first fast to emphasize non- violence in the continuing strike against grape growers not only for fair wages but also because of the effect pesticides were having on the workers exposed to them. Skin cancer, birth defects, sterilization, hormonal changes and neurological damage had been traced to these substances.
Chávez ended his 25-day fast at a Catholic mass amid 4,000 people who had gathered at his side, including Robert F. Kennedy who gave him a piece of bread; he had lost 40 pounds during this time. On July 29, 1970, the strike officially ended, and almost every grower in the Coachella Valley signed a contract within the next three months.
In 1972, the union received its permanent charter from the AFL-CIO, dropping "Organizing Committee" from its name to become the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Chávez continued to fight through the 1970s and 1980s for the rights of farm workers. There were more strikes, more marches, more fasts. In 1970, Chávez went to jail for refusing to call off a lettuce boycott when 10,000 workers staged the biggest strike by farm workers in history. Chávez was quoted as saying, "My spirit was never in jail. They can jail us, but they can never jail la causa."
Chávez and his union won major victories for farm workers, including establishing schools in migrant camps. He wanted every child to get an education because he knew this was the key for people to overcome life's obstacles. But Chávez realized that injustices would always exist for migrant workers. In 1991, he discovered workers in citrus groves being paid $2.50 per hour, sleeping under trees and paying $20 per month for the privilege, drinking impure water and bathing in ditch water.
Living a simple life, Chávez never stopped supporting the workers from whom he descended. He died in his sleep on April 23, 1993, having recently ended a seven-day fast at the home of a union supporter.
Two years later, the great Lettuce War between his union and Ted Taylor, president of Bruce Church Inc., a major lettuce producer, finally came to an end. The 17-year conflict involved numerous boycotts and lawsuits and gained a living wage for workers, who should average $7.23 an hour by the year 2000, and provided medical benefits and a pension plan for long-time workers.
Membership in the UFW increased from 20,000 to 30,000 members because of the agreement. Much of the credit for the settlement of this conflict goes to Chávez's son-in-law, Arturo Rodriguez, and Steve Taylor, Ted Taylor's son who continued negotiations after their elders died. The end of this bitter dispute is a fitting memorial to Chávez.
Chávez has influenced many in El Paso, especially Carlos Marentes, whose work helped established the first permanent shelter for migrant farm workers (See related story).
Reflecting Chávez's concern for education, the Ysleta Independent School District named their alternative school for him. The Cesar Chávez Academy was designed to give students expelled from traditional schools in the district a second chance at completing their education. A month before his death, Cesar Chávez addressed students of the Y.I.S.D., who greeted him with enthusiasm and affection. Darleen Diaz, a counselor at the Academy, says, "He was an inspiration, and after his death, the students petitioned [the district] to name the school after him. Although Chávez never got to visit the school named after him, several relatives, including one son, have.
The academy was named after Chávez on April 5, 1994, having been founded under adverse conditions including strong objections from various factions of the community, according to Li1ia B. Limon, principal. Diaz says, "It serves as the last hope for students who have faced severe problems in school, and, like the life of Chávez, plants its seeds today with faith that they will bring rich harvest in the future.
For many Americans, Cesar Chávez's life and work brought hope that all people could share in America's dream of freedom, choice and prosperity. He championed the underdog, preaching hope, education and hard work. He never gave up. In her book Hispanics of Achievement, Consuelo Rodriguez quotes Chávez's son Fernando as saying, "My father chose to live a life of voluntary poverty, and yet I believe his legacy will be rich, a legacy of non violence, a legacy in the spirit of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy." Few who know about Cesar Chávez would disagree. Cesar Chávez has become known as the people's hero, a man who fought for the rights of the migrant farm worker all his life, who gave dignity and respect to workers and jobs that produce the bountiful fruits and vegetables that supply American tables.