César Chávez

César Chávez

César Chávez speaking at a NFWA meeting, Lamont, ca. 1966. Photo by Emmon Clarke.

Cesario “César” Chávez was born in Yuma Arizona on March 31, 1927. When he was ten, the Chávez family was forced to leave Arizona and they moved to California where they worked in the fields. Right after finishing junior high school, César went to work full-time. In 1946, he enlisted in the Navy. He was honorably discharged and soon after he married Helen Fabela in October 1948. After an attempt to work on timber jobs and moving to Crescent City, César and Helen moved back to San José’s neighborhood Sal Si Puedes (Get Out If You Can).

Fred Ross Sr. standing with César Chávez on stage at Filipino Hall, Delano, September 1, 1966. Photo by John Kouns.

In 1952, with the help of a young Catholic priest named Father Donald McDonnell, community organizer Fred Ross conducted a “house meeting” at the Chávez’s home to recruit people to establish a branch of the Community Service Organization (CSO) in San José. Chávez joined the organization and in early 1954, Ross hired him as a full-time organizer. He went on to organize over twenty CSO chapters in places like Salinas, Fresno, Brawley, San Bernardino, Madera, Bakersfield, and Oxnard. In 1959, he became CSO’s director, and in 1962, he quit the organization and went on to establish the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).
Through the NFWA, Chávez helped create a credit union and the newspaper El Malcriado and engaged in its first union actions in McFarland, California, among rose grafters. In September 1965, after the Filipino workers initiated a grape strike in Delano, the NFWA members decided to join the strike, which lasted five years when growers signed contracts with the union. In 1966, Chávez’s NFWA merged with Larry Itliong’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), which later became the UFW.  

An unidentified man, Bonnie Chatfiled, César Chávez, and Alice Jiménez pose for a photo, Delano, 1966. Photo by Emmon Clarke.

César Chávez leans on a rail during the march to Sacramento in 1966. Roberto Bustos (wearing sunglasses) is standing in the background. César Chávez está apoyado en una barandilla durante la marcha a Sacramento en 1966. Roberto Bustos (con lentes de sol) está de pie en el fondo de la imagen.

César Chávez leaning on a rail during the march to Sacramento, 1966

Unlike the March on Washington of the Civil Rights era that had a group converged on one place, the pilgrimage to Sacramento chose Mao’s model of a traveling march that organized people along the route. Thus, the march was planned to pass through as many small towns as possible. The march was led by a farmworker carrying a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, made by 22-year-old Alicia Jiménez from Sacramento. American and Mexican flags were also carried at the head of the procession. As the marchers walked single file along Highway 99 and on small roads, people used to come to cheer the workers on and offer food or drinks. Sometimes, music performers welcomed the marchers and a few of these local musicians joined the march to Sacramento. A farmworker advanced team devised strategies to mobilize local farmworker committees and groups to welcome the marchers, feed them, organize a rally each evening and a mass the next morning. At each rally, Luis Valdez proclaimed the “Plan de Delano,” calling for the liberation of the farmworker. The plan was modeled after Emiliano Zapata’s Plan de Ayala. Teatro Campesino also performed during those rallies. The physical suffering of the long march enhanced the religious aspects. “Every step was a needle,” César Chávez recalled. He suffered from a swollen ankle, blisters, and fever for a day or two. Then, he continued the march hobbling a cane. “The penance part of it,” he said, “is the most important thing of the pilgrimage.”

Chávez’s vision of transforming a labor struggle into a Farm Worker Movement helped the union to succeed in its early union battles while mobilizing national support for farmworkers. Marshall Ganz argues that at the NFWA, Chávez used effectively union innovations like the roving picket lines, the creation of a supporting network across the country, and telling the story of the union as the birth of a new movement, “rooted in specific ethnic, religious, and political traditions, and reach out to incorporate the legacy of the civil rights struggle.”

The grape boycott had an important impact because it was used effectively by the abolitionists and the civil rights movement leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, César Chávez fasted for 25 days to rededicate the movement to nonviolence. When he broke his fast on March 10, he was joined by thousands of farmworkers and supporters, plus the national press. The guest of honor, U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, called Chavez “one of the heroic figures of our time”.

César Chávez picketing at a Perelli-Minetti grape field, Delano, 1967. Photo by Emmon Clarke.

Senator Robert Kennedy gives César Chávez a piece of bread ending Chávez’s fast. Helen Chávez is seated next to Senator Kennedy, Delano, March 10, 1968. Photo by John Kouns.

After the assassination of King on April 4, 1968, Chávez gave a speech at the Calvary Episcopal Church in Manhattan in May 1968. There he explained how the farmworker struggle was more than a union dispute: “People raise the question: Is this a strike or is it a civil rights fight? In California, in Texas, or in the South, anytime you strike, it becomes a civil rights movement. It becomes a civil rights fight.”

In 1975, Chávez worked with Governor Jerry Brown, Jr. and he wrote with John F. Henning the Agricultural Labor Relations Act that Assemblyman Richard Alatorre introduced and signed by the California governor into law. The act established for the first time the right to collective bargaining for farmworkers in California. Chávez continued as leader of the UFW until he passed away on April 23, 1993. A crowd of approximately 50,000 people attended his funeral service at Forty Acres.

César Chávez claps during a protest against Governor Reagan’s tuition policy, Sacramento, 1967. Photo by Emmon Clarke.

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