"For most of his life, César Estrada Chávez chose to live penniless and without property, devoting everything he had, including his frail health, to the UFW." Peter Matthiessen, New Yorker.
Renowned labor leader César Estrada Chávez was raised in a poor family that lost its farm during the Depression and was forced into migrant farm labor when Chávez was only ten years old. As a boy Chávez had little time for school or leisure activities, and he frequently experienced racial prejudice because of his Mexican American heritage. Despite these obstacles, Chávez rose to become a gifted leader and organizer who inspired thousands of people to better their lives. During the 1960s he founded the United Farm Workers, an organization that led its members in the fight for improved working conditions.
Chávez was born to Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada on March 31, 1927, on the family's farm in Yuma, Arizona. He was a child during the Great Depression, a period in the late 1920s and 1930s when the United States suffered from an extremely slow economy and widespread unemployment. During this time, many people lost their jobs and homes, and some were forced to wander the country in search of work. In the American Southwest, farmers were further devastated by the effects of a severe drought on their crops. They could hardly sell what they could grow, and eventually they were not able to grow anything at all.
The Chávez family fell victim to the drought. With no money coming in, Librado Chávez could not pay the taxes on their land, and the farm was lost in 1937. The Chávezes were forced to become migrant farm workers, wandering throughout Arizona and California following the harvest of other landowners' crops. Since his family never stayed in one place for very long, Chávez attended over thirty different schools and was able to achieve only a seventh grade education.
Life for migrant farm workers was incredibly difficult. They toiled in the hot sun for hours picking beans, peas, grapes, beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, cotton, and other crops. Sometimes they were paid fifty cents for every basket they picked. Other times they were paid only twenty cents. At the end of the day, some farm owners subtracted money from the laborers' pay for any water they drank while in the fields. At night, farm workers were often forced to sleep in run-down shacks or in their cars if they could not afford a room. And, since many of the migrant laborers were of Mexican or Mexican American descent and knew little English, unscrupulous farm owners often took advantage of the language barrier and swindled them out of the money they had rightfully earned for their work.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Chávez and his family faced prejudice everywhere — in the schools, in the fields, in the towns. Restaurants refused to serve Mexican Americans and theaters allowed them to sit only in certain sections. In 1944, when he was seventeen years old, Chávez joined the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II. Even while fighting for his country, he experienced discrimination because of his Mexican American background. After two years of service, Chávez returned to California to work on the farms. In 1948 he married Helen Fabela, settled down in a one-room shack in the town of Delano (where he picked grapes and cotton), and began to raise a family. Over the years, the couple had eight children.
The prejudices and poor working conditions facing migrant farm workers before the war did not change after it. Because of the experiences of his childhood, Chávez was greatly concerned with solving the problems of the nation's farm laborers. In 1952 he met Fred Ross, founder of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a group that sought better living conditions for migrant workers. Impressed with Ross and his ideas, Chávez began working for the CSO as a community organizer. Going from door to door at night, he helped some workers with their day-to-day problems, instructed others on how to become U.S. citizens, and encouraged all to register to vote. By 1958 Chávez had become director of the CSO in California and Arizona.
Chávez heard many complaints from migrant workers as he traveled between the two states. He was especially concerned about claims that landowners often used Mexican farmhands — who were illegally bussed across the U.S. border — to work in the fields for the lowest of wages. This prevented migrant workers already living in the United States from getting jobs on American farms. Since the workers were not organized as a group, however, they could not effectively protest the situation. Over the next few years, Chávez tried to convince CSO leaders to develop a special farm labor union that would work to improve the rights of migrant workers. When the CSO refused to do so, Chávez resigned from the organization in 1962.
Chávez and his family then settled down again in Delano, California, where he began to organize the National Farm Workers Association. For several years, Chávez worked eighteen-hour days for very little or no money at all. He drove to the fields and talked to the workers, urging them to join the National Farm Workers Association. The uneducated migrant workers were a difficult group to organize, and at times Chávez felt discouraged and defeated. But by continually pressing ahead with his efforts, he began to meet with success and the union slowly increased its ranks.
In 1965 the National Farm Workers Association was catapulted to national attention. Migrant grape pickers in Delano, who worked under harsh conditions for a dollar an hour, went on strike. They wanted the association to back them, but Chávez thought the union was still too young and weak. National Farm Workers Association members disagreed and voted to join the strike. Once the Huelga (Spanish for "strike") was on, Chávez worked tirelessly for the cause. The picket lines grew as more and more workers left the fields. Nonetheless, the landowners refused to give in to the workers' demands for better wages and working conditions. Some even threatened the workers with violence.
Chávez believed in nonviolent methods of social change. He had studied the life and teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, who had helped India gain its independence from England in 1947 through nonviolent means. Chávez responded to the landowners' threats by calling for a countrywide boycott of grapes. By discouraging the American people from buying grapes until working conditions for grape pickers improved, he attracted national attention to the plight of the farm workers. Many large labor unions supported Chávez and the strikers, including the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) and the United Auto Workers. Robert F. Kennedy, an influential senator from New York, also gave his support to the cause.
In March of 1966 the strikers marched 250 miles from Delano to the California capital of Sacramento to take their demands to state officials. By the time they arrived in Sacramento, one of several large grape companies had agreed to sign a contract with the workers. But the fight was not yet over. Soon the Teamsters Union, the powerful truckers' alliance led by Jimmy Hoffa, began to compete with the National Farm Workers Association for its members. To strengthen the association, Chávez merged his organization with part of the AFL-CIO, America's oldest and strongest group of unions. The new union was called the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). After 1972 it was known simply as the United Farm Workers (UFW).
The struggle against the grape growers continued throughout the late 1960s. In February of 1968, to draw more attention to the strike, Chávez began a twenty-five-day fast, during which he ate no solid food. People across the nation sympathized with Chávez's commitment to the cause and his nonviolent means to achieve justice. The grape boycott spread and the grape companies lost money. Finally, in June of 1970, vineyard owners agreed to a contract with the UFWOC that gave workers health insurance benefits and a raise in pay.
But the celebration did not last long. Chávez quickly turned his attention to the problems of America's lettuce workers. The Teamsters Union had signed contracts with lettuce growers that hurt rather than helped migrant workers. Chávez again organized strikes and rallies, and he called for a national boycott of lettuce. The struggle against the growers and the Teamsters, which at times had turned violent, finally came to an end in 1975 when California governor Jerry Brown passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. This was the first bill of rights for farm workers ever enacted in the United States, and it allowed them to vote on which union would best represent their needs. In elections held in August of that year, the UFW clearly beat the Teamsters.
In the 1980s Chávez protested against grape growers who used pesticides (chemicals used to kill insects) on their crops. He believed the pesticides were dangerous not only to the farm workers who picked the grapes but also to the general public who consumed the grapes. He called for another boycott, and in 1988 he fasted for thirty-six days. Although his fast again gained national attention, the boycott did not take hold as earlier ones had. The fight for farm workers' rights continued.
"For most of his life," Peter Matthiessen wrote in the New Yorker, "César Estrada Chávez chose to live penniless and without property, devoting everything he had, including his frail health, to the UFW." While in San Luis, Arizona, on union business, Chávez died in his sleep on April 23, 1993. Messages of sympathy came from leaders of churches and government, including Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton. More than thirty thousand mourners formed a three-mile-long funeral procession to carry Chávez's body to its final resting place. A year after Chávez died, famed playwright and director Luis Valdez began writing a script for a film biography about the late labor leader. In 1994 President Clinton posthumously awarded Chávez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
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Dunne, John Gregory, Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967.
Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement, Harcourt Brace, 1997.
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New Yorker, May 7, 1993, p. 82.
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Biography, U·X·L, 1995
Reproduced in U·X·L Biographies 2.0 CD-ROM, 1998.