César Chávez (1927 - 1993)
César Estrada Chávez, like his famous co-worker Dolores Huerta, was the child of farm worker parents. Born March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Arizona, in the North Gila Valley, he lived for several years on a farm homesteaded by his grandfather, a refugee from the Mexican Revolution. Then came the Depression, “the invisible scar.” After losing his farm to a local banker in 1938, César’s father was forced to move from place to place, while he, his wife, and children worked as itinerate farmers picking vegetables and fruits in Arizona and California.
During this period, which he described so eloquently to Studs Terkel later, Chávez endured many of the humiliations that make up the life of an itinerant worker’s child. He remembered one occasion in particular when his parents drove with the six children through Indio, California, and stopped at a small, road-side restaurant, its window-sign reading “White Trade Only.” Chávez’s father, who read English without quite understanding the meaning, walked in with “a pot he had, to get some coffee for my mother.”
He asked us not to come in, but we followed him anyway. And this young waitress said, ‘We don’t serve Mexicans here. Get out of here.’ I was there, and I saw it and heard it. She paid no more attention. I’m sure for the rest of her life she never thought of it again. But every time we thought of it, it hurt us. So we got back in the car and we had a difficult time trying—in fact, we never got the coffee.
During those years, Chávez and his brothers attended, by their own count, thirty-seven elementary schools. “We never got a transfer. Friday, we didn’t tell the teacher or anything. We’d just go home….
I remember one teacher—I wondered why she was asking so many questions. (In those days anybody asked questions, you became suspicious. Either a cop or a social worker.) She was a young teacher, and she just wanted to know why we were behind. One day she drove into the camp. That was quite an event, because we never had a teacher come over. Never. So it was, you know, a very meaningful day for us.... This I remember.... This is the truth, you know. History.
During the Second World War, Chávez enlisted in the Navy and spent two years on a destroyer escort in the Pacific theater. Following the war, he returned to San Jose, California, where he had worked earlier, and married Helen Favila. They settled in San Jose “on the wrong side of the tracks” with his in-laws, and worked in the fields. “We figured later that the whole family was making twenty-three cents an hour.” In the off-season, he took odd jobs; in 1949 the first of their eight children was born.
In the 1950s, César Chávez met a priest who taught him about the social encyclicals of the Catholic Church, beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891)—on the rights of workers. In 1962, after ten years with Fred Ross and the Community Service Organization, Chávez left San Jose for Delano, California, to organize the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), with Dolores Huerta. Both with young—and sizable—families, they took great risks, without any financial assistance from outsiders. In 1963, for example, Chávez turned down a well-paying administrative job with the Peace Corps in South America.
In time, more people, including Catholic clergy and young professionals, came forward to help in organizing and providing services for the farm workers. Through a series of events, in what came to be called “the Delano movement,” workers initiated a successful rent strike. In this and a later strike against Schenley Industries, Inc., they began to claim their right to organize, a right not extended to itinerate workers by earlier federal legislation. Some members worked as full-time volunteers, receiving room, board, basic expenses, and $5 a week spending money. Others gave a couple of evenings a week or a full day to organize meetings, to circulate petitions, to stand in picket lines at local supermarkets, or to perform basic tasks essential to carrying on a workers’ campaign. By 1965, farm workers began to get help from the larger unions, including Longshoremen and Teamsters, who had ignored or actively resisted them earlier.
Since the death of César Chávez in 1993, Huerta and her associates, and thousands of people from every background—students, journalists, nuns, doctors, clergymen, lawyers, secretaries—sustain the movement. Others have left to take up political careers or to follow other vocations.
Chávez once argued that a national campaign will succeed if only ten or eleven percent of the people support it. Changing the world, in other words, requires the assistance (or resistance) not of every single person, but of a conscientious, committed minority. The United Farm Workers, as with Civil Rights and similar movements around the world, requires, also, a disciplined, faithful leadership. Chávez, who died in 1993, often fasted for long periods, as he did for 36 days just prior to the incident involving Huerta in San Francisco. “The fast is the heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all of us,” Chávez said afterward, “an act of penance for those of us in moral authority.” All the while, adversaries, including agri-businesses linked to national or international corporations have enormous power on their side.
For all these reasons, efforts on behalf of the workers are on-going, even as the union enjoys occasional major and minor victories along the way. Through it all, United Farm Workers have reason to celebrate their success in maintaining the dignity of various minorities and assisting other workers in claiming theirs. In recent decades, they have maintained a persistent campaign to ban the use of harmful chemicals by corporations that cause serious illnesses and death for field workers.
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