The Life of César Estrada Chávez

At five feet, six inches tall, César Estrada Chávez was a giant. Against overwhelming odds and the opposition of some of the most powerful corporations in the country, he succeeded in bringing union representation to tens of thousands of farmworkers.

During the Great Depression, César’s father lost his farm to unscrupulous speculators, and the family was forced to follow the crops to California as migrant farmworkers. At 15 years of age, with his father disabled, César quit school to work full time to help support his family.

Traveling from town to town in search of work, workers lived in squalid shacks, exploited by the growers, and forced to perform inhumane stoop labor without water or sanitary facilities. If they were injured on the job, they had no workers’ compensation and their young children had to work just so families could eat. Farmworkers were excluded by the National Labor Relations Act, so they had no right to form a union.

Because of his experience as a farmworker, César Chávez decided to organize the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. Then, in 1965, he led hundreds of workers on strike to the shout of “¡Huelga!” in support of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a Filipino-led union. Though most of his workers were Mexican-Americans, César insisted that “our belief is to help everyone, not just one race.” He had studied the writings of St. Francis of Assisi and the philosophy of Mahatma Ghandi, and he demanded of his members that they follow a strict policy of non-violence—even in the face of threats and physical violence by growers and harassment by the police.

To bring national attention to La Causa—the farmworker struggle for social justice—he then led workers and supporters on a historic march, walking 340 miles from Delano to Sacramento, California. Holding banners depicting la Virgen de Guadalupe, the marchers won their first Union victory over the Schenley Corporation.

The large growers refused to negotiate for years. So in 1968 Dolores Huerta, Vice President of the Union, convinced César, by then President of the United Farmworkers of America - the UFW - to launch an international grape boycott. Strike-weary workers demanded an answer to growers’ violence. César remained firm, and to show his own commitment to non-violence, he began a fast, going without food for 25 days. Once again, he focused international attention on the unjust conditions of the farmworkers.

At the end of the fast, Senator Robert Kennedy called him “one of the heroic figures of our time.” He had already received support from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote to him, saying that “our separate struggles are really one—a struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.” César Chávez was later to gain an audience with Pope Paul VI and the support of the Church for his movement.

After this, César sought the support of the universities, the churches, and community organizations, all of whom joined with the red and white flag of the farmworkers, emblazoned with the black Aztec eagle which symbolizes struggle and hope. The Civil Rights Movement was rapidly spreading across the country, and Mexican- Americans in particular were energized and invigorated by the Grape Boycott, the Huelga and La Causa. By 1970, the Farmworkers Union had forced dozens of growers to sign contracts, significantly improving the working conditions for all farmworkers. In 1975 California passed the Agriculture Labor Relations Act (ALRA), which provided legal protection to the farmworkers.

The growers did not give up. When contracts expired, they refused to renew them. Politicians failed to enforce provisions of the ALRA or of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Despite the Union’s hard-won gains, it is estimated that by 1987, 80% of farmworkers still had no water or toilets in the fields. Outside of California, including the onion and chile fields of New Mexico, the short hoe remained the growers’ favored tool of backbreaking torture. But an even more dangerous menace presented itself in the fields—pesticides. Workers became ill from poisonous fumes. Hundreds died. Up and down the San Joaquín Valley, childhood cancer was many times the national average, and young children were born deformed and doomed to early death.

Again, César responded with great courage. He embarked on a new fast, this one lasting 36 days, which severely afflicted his body. But it did not damage his spirit. He continued to travel across the country, including New Mexico, to fight against this new evil and to support working women, men, and their children.

His body broken by struggle, César died in his sleep on April 23, 1993, less than a month after visiting Albuquerque to seek support for the farmworkers.

In 1994, César was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in America.