César E. Chávez was a central figure in the drive towards greater equality for Mexican Americans. Propelled to national prominence in the early 1960s, Chávez illuminated La Causa (“the cause”), the fight against the socioeconomic inequalities endured by those of Mexican heritage. Until his death in 1993, Chávez tirelessly advocated the plight of farm laborers and the socially marginalized. Fundamentally, he fought against the elite California growers who wielded far more power than most groups in the state.
Césario E. Chávez was born March 31, 1927, in Gila, Arizona, to Librado and Juana Chávez. Librado was a modestly successful businessman, owning a grocery store, auto repair shop, and pool hall. Librado also maintained a farm. Chávez often worked beside his father, learning practical organizing skills and the values of hard work. Juana was a deeply pious Catholic who ingrained in her son both strong moral fiber and the importance of nonviolent means to resolve disputes. His parents regaled him with stories of Father Hidalgo, the revolutionary priest who challenged Spanish rule in Mexico using the Virgin of Guadalupe as his symbol. Through these teachings, Chávez gained sympathy for the poor.
When the Great Depression began, Chávez's family was initially prepared; their farm contained livestock and produce for sustenance while Librado's businesses generated income. Yet Librado had extended credit to several family members and deferred his annual property tax
payments. By 1937, Chávez's father owed the state of Arizona more than $4,000. After Librado was denied a bank loan, the state took possession of his farm. At the age of 12, Chávez, along with his parents and siblings, moved to California to become a migrant farm worker.
In Depression-era California, witnessing an influx of Dust Bowl refugees, competition for jobs was fierce. The Chávez family settled in Oxnard where they picked beans and walnuts. To help support his family, Chávez spent half of his days in school while the rest of the time he worked the fields. He attended dozens of schools during his youth due to the migratory nature of farm work. In the late 1930s, the Chávez family moved to Sal Si Puedes, an impoverished colonia near San Jose. Farm work was grueling, and laborers were often cheated out of their wages. Being of Mexican heritage, the Chávez family feared immigration authorities, for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) used deportation to loosen the state's occupational gridlock, deporting even U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Though the Border Patrol once detained the Chávez family for questioning, they were released without incident.
Due to financial necessity, Chávez eventually quit school. He noticed attempts by the state to minimize Mexican heritage and force those of his background to adopt Anglicized ways. During World War II, Chávez served in the U.S. Navy as a deckhand but never saw combat. Returning to California after the war, his employment prospects, save for farm work, looked dim. In 1948, he married Helena Fabela. In that same year, he experienced his first labor strike, which failed due to the workers’ lack of solid organization. With defeat regularly surrounding the union movements in California, Chávez developed awareness for the plight of workers. This awareness grew after Father Donald McDonnell arrived in Sal Si Puedes. McDonnell, who had come to establish a Catholic congregation, mentored Chávez and instructed him on how to rally people together.
Chávez faced his greatest test in the 1960s. Between 1962 and 1964, he struggled to unite California's farm workers. Through patience, persistence, and charisma, Chávez had by 1964 laid the groundwork for the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with nearly 1,000 members and a credit union with $25,000 in assets. Chávez worked tirelessly in and near the town of Delano, California. With some 5,000 workers laboring for growers such as Di Giorgio and Schenley, this was one of the richest grape-growing regions in the state. For Chávez, the link between the Catholic Church and the NFWA was critical, as both espoused a genuine sympathy for uplifting the poor. Chávez stood at the center of a loose coalition of other activists, priests, and organizing agencies. National events, such as the civil rights movement, lent La Causa greater visibility.
Taking only $50 per week for his organizing activities, Chávez still toiled beside his family in Delano's fields. By the summer of 1965, worker discontent and rumors of a strike circulated throughout the town. At first, Chávez was unsure if the NFWA could weather a long and costly strike. When the Agricultural Workers’ Organizing Committee (AWOC) called for a strike and enlisted Chávez's support, rather than risk splintering La Causa, Chávez brought the matter to a vote in September. The vote in favor of a strike was unanimous.
In August 1966, California Governor Pat Brown ordered the Schenley and Di Giorgio companies to sign a contract with UFWOC. Though Chávez received praise from Martin Luther King Jr. and elsewhere throughout the nation, he felt the battle was not yet won. He routinely faced intimidation from other growers and death threats. Moving beyond strikes and boycotts, in February 1968 Chávez began a fast at Forty Acres, the Delano headquarters of UFWOC. Some supporters did not appreciate the religious aura of the fast, yet the act itself became a media sensation. Chávez maintained his fast for 25 days. On March 11, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, on the campaign trail for president, arrived to break bread with Chávez, who ended his fast that day. The strike, however, continued through 1969.
In the spring of 1970, 23 more growers signed contracts with UFWOC, with some printing the UFWOC black eagle insignia on their produce boxes. The Delano strike officially ended July 29, 1970. Despite a victory for Chávez and the elevated position he held, the next two decades were difficult. As the spirit of the 1960s gave way to division, radicalization, and defeat in the early 1970s, crusades such as the one led by UFWOC held less appeal for many Americans. The twin crises of Vietnam and Watergate had caused much of the previous decade's hope to wither. In 1970, Chávez was arrested for disobeying an injunction against boycotting a lettuce grower. Some of his strongest supporters questioned his leadership and felt he did not delegate authority. In addition, UFWOC membership dropped precipitously, from 50,000 in 1971 to just 10,000 by 1973.
In the mid-1980s, Chávez lobbied California Governor George Deukmejian against pesticide use in the fields. As undocumented workers streamed into the state, Chávez found this to be an obstacle in organizing and fighting scab laborers. In 1991, a California court upheld an earlier ruling against UFWOC, citing it for $2 million in damages and the death of a worker during a 1979 strike. By the 1990s, many Americans no longer were sympathetic to unions and Chávez's message seemed drowned out by the changing times. In April 1993, Chávez traveled to Arizona to assist farm workers who were being sued by a lettuce grower. Hoping to inspire them, he began fasting. When friends noticed his failing strength, they begged him to stop. On April 23, 1993, Chávez ended his fast, went to bed, and died in his sleep.
Stephen E Nepa
See also: King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929–1968)
Acuna, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Etulain, Richard, ed. César Chávez: A Brief Biography with Documents. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Griswold de Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia. César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
La Botz, Dan. César Chávez and La Causa. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.
Levy, Jacques. César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Matthiessen, Peter. Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1969.