Senator Robert F. Kennedy described Cesar Chavez as "one of the heroic figures of our time."
A true American hero, Cesar was a civil rights, Latino and farm labor leader; a genuinely religious and spiritual figure; a community organizer and social entrepreneur; a champion of militant nonviolent social change; and a crusader for the environment and consumer rights.
A first-generation American, he was born on March 31, 1927, near his family's small homestead in the North Gila River Valley outside Yuma, Arizona. At age 11, his family lost the farm during the Great Depression and became migrant farm workers. Throughout his youth and into adulthood, Cesar traveled the migrant streams throughout California laboring in the fields, orchards and vineyards, where he was exposed to the hardships and injustices of farm worker life.
After attending numerous schools as the family migrated, Cesar finished his formal education after the eighth grade and worked the fields full-time to help support his family. Although his formal education ended then, he later satisfied an insatiable intellectual curiosity and was self-taught on an eclectic range of subjects through reading during the rest of his life.
Cesar joined the U.S. Navy in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, and served in the Western Pacific. He returned from the service in 1948 to marry Helen Fabela, whom he met while working in fields and vineyards around Delano. The Chavez family soon settled in the poor East San Jose barrio of Sal Si Puedes (Get Out if You Can), and eventually had eight children and 31 grandchildren.
Dream to organize farm workers
Cesar's career in community organizing began in 1952, when he met and was recruited and trained by Fred Ross, a legendary community organizer who was then forming the San Jose chapter of the Community Service Organization, the most prominent and militant Latino civil rights group of its time. Cesar spent 10 years with CSO, coordinating voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, leading campaigns against racial and economic discrimination, and organizing new CSO chapters across California. In the late 1950s and early '60s, Cesar served as CSO's staff director.
Yet, Cesar's dream was to organize a union that would protect and serve the farm workers whose poverty and powerlessness he had shared. For years, he read everything he could find on farm worker and other unions. He talked to everyone he met who participated in field strikes. He knew the history of farm worker organizing was one sad story after another of broken unions and strikes crushed by violence. He knew that for 100 years many others with much better educations and more resources than he possessed had tried, and failed, to organize farm workers. He knew the experts said organizing farm workers was impossible.
Yet Cesar also realized the only thing holding him back from trying to organize farm workers was his financial security. So in 1962, he took stock of himself: He was 35. He was staff director for the CSO. It was the first steady job he ever held the first time since being a migrant farm worker that he and his family didn't have to constantly struggle to pay rent or buy food.
He had long talks with his wife, Helen. They knew the huge risks and long odds against success. Mostly, Helen worried what would become of their eight children, then ages four to 13.
Cesar came to see what he called "the trap most people get themselves into - [by] tying themselves to a job for security." But he also understood the cycle of poverty that had trapped farm workers for generations.
So on his birthday, March 31, in 1962, Cesar resigned from CSO, leaving the first decent-paying job he had ever had with the security of a regular paycheck. With $1,200 in life savings he founded the National Farm Workers Association with 10 members - Cesar, his wife, Helen, and their eight young children. The NFWA later became the United Farm Workers of America.
The Chavez family moved to Delano, California, a dusty little farm town in California's Central Valley. Helen Chavez and the older children worked in the fields to support the family. Cesar sometimes worked in the fields too on weekends to help make ends meet. He babysat the youngest kids as he drove to farm towns, trying to recruit workers into his infant union.
It was a tough sell at first. He would talk to 100 workers before finding one or two who weren't afraid. Too often he returned home after days on the road not having recruited anyone. He would sometimes get very discouraged. Helen would offer encouragement and boost his spirits.
In 1962, President Kennedy offered to make Cesar head of the Peace Corps in a part of Latin America. It would have meant a big house with servants and all the advantages for his children. Instead, Cesar turned down the job in exchange for a life of self-imposed poverty that was with him until he died.
Founding the union was a leap of faith, not just because the odds were against him, but also because he still had serious doubts; he didn't know if he would succeed. But he did it anyway. He knew he couldn't live with himself if he didn't at least try.
Years of adversity and victories
The coming years would bring much more adversity: Strikes and boycotts, marches and fasts, victories and defeats. But through it all, Cesar learned and taught others how commitment and sacrifice can set you free from the constraints imposed by depending entirely on money and material things.
Over four decades, Cesar saw his share of defeats, but also historic victories. Under Cesar, the UFW achieved unprecedented gains for farm workers, establishing it as the first successful farm workers union in American history. Among them were:
The first union contracts requiring rest periods, toilets in the fields, clean drinking water, hand washing facilities, banning discrimination in employment and sexual harassment of women workers, requiring protective clothing against pesticide exposure, prohibiting pesticide spraying while workers are in the fields and outlawing DDT and other dangerous pesticides (years before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acted).
The first comprehensive union medical (and later dental and vision) benefits for farm workers and their families through a joint union-employer health and welfare fund, the Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan, which has paid out more than $250 million in benefits.
Because of Cesar and millions of Americans who supported farm workers by boycotting grapes and other products, under then-Gov. Jerry Brown California passed the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, the nation's first, and still the only, law guaranteeing farm workers the right to organize, choose their own union representative and negotiate with their employers.
A different vision
When Cesar Chavez began building the farm worker movement 50 years ago, he knew it would take a strong union to remedy the economic injustices workers suffer at the workplace. He also realized it would require a movement to overcome the burdens of poverty, discrimination and powerlessness people endure in the community. So Cesar started a burial program, the first credit union for farm workers, health clinics, day-care centers and job-training programs. He and the movement built affordable housing - initially a retirement home for elderly and displaced Filipino American farm workers and later multi-family and homeownership communities for farm workers and other low-income working families and seniors. He established two educational-style Spanish-language farm worker radio stations, the beginning of what is now the nine-station Radio Campesina network. He set up the Fred Ross Education Institute that trained negotiators, contract administrators and union organizers.
From Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar adopted historic strategies and tactics that were novel to organized labor. He demanded farm workers strictly adhere to a pledge of nonviolence. This different vision of organizing people spurred opposition from inside the UFW. In 1968, his insistence on nonviolence drew dissent from some union staff and young male strikers frustrated by slow progress of the grape strike and anxious to retaliate against abusive growers. Some strikers and staff left the union during his 25-day fast for nonviolence, but Cesar prevailed. Sen. Robert Kennedy came to Delano as the fast ended, which is when he called Cesar "one of the heroic figures of our time."
Cesar's second long public fast was for 25 days in 1972, in Phoenix, Arizona, over enactment of that state's punitive law that is still on the books making it impossible for farm workers to organize. His last public fast, and his longest at 36 days, was in Delano again in 1988, when he was 61, and focused public attention on the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their children.
Despite skepticism from some labor leaders, Cesar was the first to apply boycotts to major labor-management disputes. Millions of people across North America rallied to La Causa, the farm workers cause, by boycotting grapes and other products, forcing growers to bargain union contracts and agree to California's pioneering farm labor law in 1975.
Finally, Cesar embraced a life of voluntary poverty, as did other movement leaders and staff until the late 1990s. Starting in the 1960s, Cesar and others in the movement made $5 a week plus room and board. He never earned more than $6,000 a year, never owned a house and, when he died at age 66 in 1993, left no money behind for his family. Yet, some 50,000 people marched behind his casket during funeral services in Delano.
Although he was always proud to be part of the American labor movement, Cesar sometimes departed from the AFL-CIO and other labor allies, even when his stands were not popular among some in his own constituencies, farm workers and Latinos. Cesar came out against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and was an early and outspoken supporter of gay rights in the 1970s. The UFW opposed penalizing employers for hiring undocumented workers and championed just immigration reform as early as 1973.
The 1970s witnessed another internal political fight, between those who wanted the UFW to become a conventional business union focused on more money and benefits for its members, and others led by Cesar, who had another vision as a movement that produces for union members but also transcends traditional trade unionism to embrace challenges and solutions outside the job site for farm workers and a larger emerging working class Latino community. Although he was, and continues to be, bitterly attacked by his critics for this stand, Cesar won that fight too.
Common man, uncommon vision
The significance of Cesar's life transcends any one cause or struggle. He was a unique and humble leader as well as a great humanitarian and communicator who influenced and inspired millions of Americans from all walks of life to social and political activism, especially for the poor and disenfranchised in our society. Cesar forged a national and extraordinarily diverse coalition for farm worker boycotts that included students, middle class consumers, trade unionists, religious activists and minorities.
Cesar passed away peacefully in his sleep on April 23, 1993, in the small farm worker town of San Luis, Arizona, not far from where he was born 66 years earlier on the family homestead. More than 50,000 people attended his funeral services in Delano, the same community in which he had planted the seeds of social justice decades before.
Cesar's motto "Si se puede!" ("Yes, it can be done!"), coined during his 1972 fast in Arizona's mbodies the uncommon legacy he left for people around the world. Since his death, hundreds of communities across the nation have named schools, parks, streets, libraries, and other public facilities as well as awards and scholarships in his honor. His birthday, March 31, is an official holiday in 10 states. In 1994, President Clinton posthumously awarded Cesar the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, at the White House.
He liked to say his job as an organizer was helping ordinary people do extraordinary things. Cesar made everyone, especially the farm workers, feel the jobs they were doing in the movement were important. It didn't matter if they were lawyers working in the courtroom or cooking to feed the people in the strike kitchen.
He showed the farm workers they could win against great odds, even if they were poor and weren't able to go to school. By giving people faith helping them believe in themselves Cesar succeeded where so many others failed for 100 years to organize farm workers. That is why he was able to do the impossible by challenging, and overcoming, the awesome power of one of California's richest industries.
Cesar Chavez's common man with an uncommon vision stood for equality, justice, and dignity for all Americans. His universal principles remain as relevant and inspiring today for all people as they were when he was alive.