Hailed as one of the greatest American civil rights leaders is Cesar Estrada Chavez. He was a Mexican American farmer born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona and passed away in 1993. He fought for the rights of the migrant farm workers; these are workers that move from place to place in order to find work. He is best known for his efforts to gain better working conditions for the thousands of workers who worked on farms for low wages and sometimes in bad conditions. He is considered a hero among farm laborers and his birthday has become a holiday in four states.
Cesar Chavez began his career at the age of ten when his family became migrant workers. His father had lost their land during the great depression. Cesar’s family and thousands of others traveled throughout the southwest working in fields and vineyards. He quit school at the end of the eighth grade in order to help his family financially. He was married to Helen Fabela in 1948 after serving three years in the U.S. Navy.
In 1952 at the age of twenty five Cesar began working for the Community Service Organization or the CSO. This was a Latino civil rights group. He traveled throughout California making speeches for the support of workers rights, fighting against racial and economic discrimination against the Chicano residents. He also began more CSO chapters across California and Arizona. In 1958 he became the USO’s national director.
Cesar’s dream was to create an organization to help farm workers whose suffering he had also experienced. He was unable to convince the CSO to commit to working farmers organization. Then in 1962 he resigned his job with the CSO and moved to Delano, California with his wife and eight young children. He then co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Dolores Huerta, this was changed to the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1966.
Cesar Chavez, like many other civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi, believed in non-violent actions. He used these tactics in1965 when his NFWA group joined with the AFL-CIO to strike against the major Delano area grape growers. During this strike Cesar fasted for 25 days to help bring attention to the plight of the workers. This was a successful 5 year strike-boycott that led to the first major labor victory for U.S. farm workers.
This event led to more like them in the U.S. throughout the years including Texas and Wisconsin. In the early 1980’s farmers who worked under contracts with the UFW as it was now called enjoyed higher pay, family health coverage, pension benefits and other contract protections. In 1984 he led a boycott against the use of toxic pesticides on grapes. This is where he fasted for 36 days in protest for the workers and their children that were working with this pesticide.
Cesar Chavez was also opposed to immigration and fought against it during his years in the UFW. He believed that the Bracero Program that existed from 1942-1964 undermined the U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. This program was between the U.S. and Mexico allowing for guest workers to help American farmers. These guest workers were paid less and were also allowed to work in place of the striking workers. This law was overturned thanks to Cesar Chavez.
The legacy of Cesar Chavez is extensive. Many farmer laborers see him as a hero. His work helped them to have higher pay and to improve their work safety. His birthday is a state holiday in California, and Texas. It is an optional holiday in Texas and Colorado. He has many parks, streets and some libraries named after him. He even has his own postage stamp. His son and grandson tour the country talking of his legacy. Without Cesar Chavez the migrant workers and America would have missed out.