In 1927, César Chávez was born in Yuma, Arizona, on the farm where his Mexican grandparents had settled. Like many other farms in the West at that time, the Chávez family lost their land in the Great Depression and joined the thousands of itinerant farmworkers traveling to California in desperate search for work. César spent the majority of his childhood picking fruit in the field, having left school after eighth grade to help support the family. When he turned 17, he joined the Navy and then afterwards relocated to Delano, California, and began working as a farm laborer again.
Chávez befriended several social justice activists who were involved in the Mexican-American community and eventually helped them start a chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO) in San Jose. Despite being soft-spoken and gentle, Chávez proved to be a powerful orator who got the attention of the poor and disenfranchised. Chávez was soon voted vice president of the chapter and then later national director of the entire organization.
César Chávez never forgot the conditions he and his family struggled under in the fields: long hours, low pay and high accommodation costs by landowners that took most of their wage. When he believed the CSO was becoming dominated by middle-class concerns and didn’t do enough to help the farmworker, he resigned and used his life savings to form the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in Delano.
The labor laws enacted after the Great Depression to protect employees did not extend to those who worked in agriculture. Therefore, 30 years later, migrant workers still faced the same problems they did during the Depression. Chávez allied with Dolores Huerta, who had also worked with CSO, to unionize farmworkers and fight for better conditions. The NFWA joined the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to later become the United Farm Workers (UFW), which was led by Chávez. In 1965, their first major fight was to secure better conditions for workers picking grapes in Delano.
Even though he only had an eighth-grade education, Chávez was well read, particularly in history and philosophy. He knew there was a long past of farmworker strikes being unsuccessful and often ending in violence, particularly because of the power of the landowners in California. He decided to take the protest to the cities, where they were more likely to be seen by the public and where demonstrators were less likely to be beaten. Heavily influenced by Gandhi, Chávez forbade his members to take up violence, as he believed that “progress through violence comes with strings attached.” Instead, he staged a boycott of all California table grapes, going on marches and hunger strikes to gain national attention. In 1970, a collective bargaining agreement was reached that led to better pay and the right to unionize for the grape pickers, marking the first major political victory for farmworkers in America.
At that point, the momentum of the United Farm Workers extended their reach to the entire U.S., opening up branches across the country. Chávez fought for what he called “La Causa,” meaning the cause of the farmworker. Like many pro-labor groups at that time, he was monitored by the FBI. Nonetheless, he built an alliance with California Governor Jerry Brown, who was sympathetic to La Causa. This relationship helped pass the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which legally allowed farmworkers the right to unionize. It proved to be a piece of landmark legislation, forming the basis of much of the labor code that followed after it.
Dolores Huerta is also credited for much of the United Farm Workers’ success, as she was prominent in executing the organization and details of the movement. The fact that she was not afraid of confrontation was said to complement Chávez’s more mild nature, even if the two of them argued often. Her assertiveness and strength of personality was sometimes shocking to the Mexican-American community, as it did not fit with the expectations of women in their community at the time. Regardless, she was not afraid of a fight, and that ultimately benefited the United Farm Workers.
César Chávez passed away in 1993. A year later, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Since then, the United Farm Workers has continued to build on Chávez’s legacy. Today, they are active on a variety of issues that affect farmworkers, including immigration reform, keeping workers safe during the pandemic and pushing for bills that prevent employees from having to be in the fields in extreme heat. They endeavor to represent a group of people who serve American agriculture but may not always have a voice. Thirty years after his death, Chávez’s La Causa is still alive.
Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis