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Cesar Chavez
Chavez in 1974
Born César Estrada Chávez
(1927-03-31)March 31, 1927
Yuma, Arizona, U.S.
Died April 23, 1993(1993-04-23) (aged 66)
San Luis, Arizona, U.S.
  • Labor leader
  • Civil rights activist
Spouse(s) Helen Fabela Chávez
Children 8
Awards Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994)

Cesar Chavez (born César Estrada Chávez,[1] locally: [ˈsesaɾ esˈtɾaða ˈtʃaβes]; March 31, 1927 – April 23, 1993) was an American labor leader and civil rights activist who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers union, UFW) in 1962.[2] Originally a Mexican American farm worker, Chavez became the best known Latino American civil rights activist, and was strongly promoted by the American labor movement, which was eager to enroll Hispanic members. His public-relations approach to unionism and aggressive but nonviolent tactics made the farm workers' struggle a moral cause with nationwide support. By the late 1970s, his tactics had forced growers to recognize the UFW as the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in California and Florida. During his lifetime, Colegio Cesar Chavez was one of the few institutions named in his honor, but after his death he became a major historical icon for the Latino community, with many schools, streets, and parks being named after him. He has since become an icon for organized labor and leftist politics, symbolizing support for workers and for Hispanic empowerment based on grass roots organizing. He is also famous for popularizing the slogan "Sí, se puede" (Spanish for "Yes, one can" or, roughly, "Yes, it can be done"), which was adopted as the 2008 campaign slogan of Barack Obama. His supporters say his work led to numerous improvements for union laborers. Although the UFW faltered a few years after Chavez died in 1993, he became an iconic "folk saint" in the pantheon of Mexican Americans.[3] His birthday, March 31, has become Cesar Chavez Day, a state holiday in California, Colorado, and Texas. Among many other honors and accolades received both while still living and after his death, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.

Early life and education

Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, in a Mexican-American family of six children.[4] He was the son of Juana Estrada and Librado Chávez. He had two brothers, Richard (1929–2011) and Librado, and two sisters, Rita and Vicki.[5] He was named after his grandfather, Cesario.[6] Chavez grew up in a small adobe home, the same home in which he was born. His family owned a grocery store and a ranch, but their land was lost during the Great Depression. The family's home was taken away after his father had agreed to clear eighty acres of land in exchange for the deed to the house, an agreement which was subsequently broken. Later, when Chavez's father attempted to purchase the house, he could not pay the interest on the loan and the house was sold back to its original owner.[6] His family then moved to California to become migrant farm workers.

The Chavez family faced many hardships in California. The family would pick peas and lettuce in the winter, cherries and beans in the spring, corn and grapes in the summer, and cotton in the fall.[4] When Chavez was a teenager, he and his older sister Rita would help other farm workers and neighbors by driving those unable to drive to the hospital to see a doctor.[7]

In 1942, Chavez quit school in the seventh grade.[8] It would be his final year of formal schooling, because he did not want his mother to have to work in the fields. Chavez dropped out to become a full-time migrant farm worker.[6] In 1946 he joined the United States Navy and served for two years.[6] Chavez had hoped that he would learn skills in the Navy that would help him later when he returned to civilian life.[9] Later, Chavez described his experience in the military as "the two worst years of my life".[10]

Activism, 1952–1976

National Farm Workers Association political activism buttons

Chavez worked in the fields until 1952, when he became an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group. Father Donald McDonnell who served in Santa Clara County introduced Fred Ross, a community organizer, to Cesar Chavez.[11] Chavez urged Mexican Americans to register and vote, and he traveled throughout California and made speeches in support of workers' rights. He later became CSO's national director in 1958.[12]

Workers' rights

In 1962, Chavez left the CSO and co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Dolores Huerta. It was later called the United Farm Workers (UFW).

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Chavez speaking at a 1974 United Farm Workers rally in Delano, California.

When Filipino American farm workers initiated the Delano grape strike on September 8, 1965, to protest for higher wages, Chavez eagerly supported them. Six months later, Chavez and the NFWA led a strike of California grape pickers on the historic farmworkers march from Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento for similar goals. The UFW encouraged all Americans to boycott table grapes as a show of support. The strike lasted five years and attracted national attention. In March 1966, the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare's Subcommittee on Migratory Labor held hearings in California on the strike. During the hearings, subcommittee member Robert F. Kennedy expressed his support for the striking workers.[13]

These activities led to similar movements in Southern Texas in 1966, where the UFW supported fruit workers in Starr County, Texas, and led a march to Austin, in support of UFW farm workers' rights. In the Midwest, Chavez's movement inspired the founding of two midwestern independent unions: Obreros Unidos in Wisconsin in 1966, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in Ohio in 1967. Former UFW organizers would also found the Texas Farm Workers Union in 1975.

This historic building is the Santa Rita Center (also known as Santa Rita Hall). It is where Cesar Chavez began his 24-day hunger strike on May 11, 1972. Coretta King met with Chavez in the hall during his fast. The structure was listed in the Phoenix Historic Property Register on October 2007.

In the early 1970s, the UFW organized strikes and boycotts—including the Salad Bowl strike, the largest farm worker strike in U.S. history—to protest for, and later win, higher wages for those farm workers who were working for grape and lettuce growers. He again fasted to draw public attention. UFW organizers believed that a reduction in produce sales by 15% was sufficient to wipe out the profit margin of the boycotted product.

Chavez undertook a number of "spiritual fasts", regarding the act as “a personal spiritual transformation”.[14] In 1968, he fasted for 25 days, promoting the principle of nonviolence.[15] In 1970, Chavez began a fast of "thanksgiving and hope" to prepare for pre-arranged civil disobedience by farm workers.[16] Also in 1972, he fasted in response to Arizona’s passage of legislation that prohibited boycotts and strikes by farm workers during the harvest seasons.[16] These fasts were influenced by the Catholic tradition of penance and by Mohandas Gandhi’s fasts and emphasis of nonviolence.[15]


The UFW during Chavez's tenure was committed to restricting immigration. Chavez and Dolores Huerta, cofounder and president of the UFW, fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemmed from their belief that the program undermined U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Since the Bracero Program ensured a constant supply of cheap immigrant labor for growers, immigrants could not protest any infringement of their rights, lest they be fired and replaced. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the Bracero Program in 1964. In 1973, the UFW was one of the first labor unions to oppose proposed employer sanctions that would have prohibited hiring illegal immigrants. Later during the 1980s, while Chavez was still working alongside Huerta, he was key in getting the amnesty provisions into the 1986 federal immigration act.[17]

On a few occasions, concerns that illegal immigrant labor would undermine UFW strike campaigns led to a number of controversial events, which the UFW describes as anti-strikebreaking events, but which have also been interpreted as being anti-immigrant. In 1969, Chavez and members of the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valleys to the border of Mexico to protest growers' use of illegal immigrants as strikebreakers. Joining him on the march were Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale.[citation needed] In its early years, the UFW and Chavez went so far as to report illegal immigrants who served as strikebreaking replacement workers (as well as those who refused to unionize) to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.[18][19][20][21][22]

In 1973, the United Farm Workers set up a "wet line" along the United States-Mexico border to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the United States illegally and potentially undermining the UFW's unionization efforts.[23] During one such event, in which Chavez was not involved, some UFW members, under the guidance of Chavez's cousin Manuel, physically attacked the strikebreakers after peaceful attempts to persuade them not to cross the border failed.[24][25][26]

Legislative campaigns

Chavez had long preferred grassroots action to legislative work, but in 1974, propelled by the recent election of the pro-union Jerry Brown as governor of California, as well as a costly battle with the Teamsters union over the organizing of farmworkers, Chavez decided to try to work toward legal victories.[27] Once in office Brown's support for the UFW cooled.[27] The UFW decided to organize a 110-mile (180 km) march by a small group of UFW leaders from San Francisco to the E & J Gallo Winery in Modesto. Just a few hundred marchers left San Francisco on February 22, 1975. By the time they reached Modesto on March 1, however, more than 15,000 people had joined the march en route.[27] The success of the Modesto march garnered significant media attention, and helped convince Brown and others that the UFW still had significant popular support.[27]

Chavez placing Jerry Brown's name for nomination during the roll call vote at the 1976 Democratic National Convention

On June 4, 1975, Governor Brown signed into law the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), which established collective bargaining for farmworkers. The act set up the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to oversee the process.

In mid-1976, the ALRB ran out of its budgeted money for the year, as a result of a massive amount of work in setting up farmworker elections. The California legislature refused to allocate more money, so the ALRB closed shop for the year.[28] In response, Chavez gathered signatures in order to place Proposition 14 on the ballot, which would guarantee the right of union organizers to visit and recruit farmworkers, even if it meant trespassing on private property controlled by farm owners. The proposition went before California voters in November 1976, but was defeated by a 2–1 margin.[28]

Setbacks and a change of direction, 1976–1988

As a result of the failure of Proposition 14, Chavez decided that the UFW suffered from disloyalty, poor motivation and lack of communication.[28] He felt that the union needed to turn into a "movement".[29] He took inspiration from the Synanon community of California (which he had visited previously), which had begun as a drug rehabilitation center before turning into a New Age religious organization.[30] Synanon had pioneered what they referred to as "the Game", in which each member would be singled out in turn to receive harsh, profanity-laced criticism from the rest of the community.[30] Chavez instituted "the Game" at UFW, having volunteers, including senior members of the organization, receive verbal abuse from their peers.[30] He also fired many members, whom he accused of disloyalty; in some cases he accused volunteers of being spies for either the Republican Party or the Communists.[29]

In 1977, Chavez attempted to reach out to Filipino-American farmworkers in a way that ended up backfiring. Acting on the advice of former UFW leader Andy Imutan, Chavez met with then-President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos in Manila and endorsed the regime, which was seen by human rights advocates and religious leaders as a vicious dictatorship. This caused a further rift within the UFW, which led to Philip Vera Cruz's resignation from the organization.[31][32][33][34]

During this time, Chavez also clashed with other UFW members about policy issues, including the possible creation of local unions for the UFW, which was typical for national unions but which Chavez was firmly against, on the grounds that it detracted from his vision for the UFW as a movement.[28]

By the end of the 1970s, only one member of the UFW's original board of directors remained in place.[28] Still, before the turn of the 1980s decade, Chavez's tactics had forced growers to recognize the UFW as the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in California and Florida. Meanwhile, membership in the UFW union had been in decline and by the mid-1980s it had dwindled to around 15,000.[35] In the 1980s, with the UFW declining, Chavez got into real-estate development; some of the development projects he was involved with used non-union construction workers, which The New Yorker later termed an "embarrassment".[29] In 1988, Chavez attempted another grape boycott, to protest the exposure of farmworkers to pesticides. Bumper stickers reading "NO GRAPES" and "UVAS NO" (the translation in Spanish) were widespread.[36] However, the boycott failed. As a result, Chavez undertook what was to be his last fast. He fasted for 35 days before being convinced by others to start eating again. He lost 30 pounds during the fast, and it caused health problems that may have contributed to his death.[29]

Personal life

When Chavez returned home from his service in the military in 1948, he married his high school sweetheart, Helen Fabela. The couple moved to San Jose, California, where they had eight children.[6]

Chavez was a vegan, both because he believed in animal rights and also for his health.[37][38]


The grave of César Chávez is located in the garden of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California.

Chavez died on April 23, 1993, of unspecified natural causes in San Luis, Arizona, in the home of former farm worker and longtime friend Dofla Maria Hau.[6] Chavez was in Arizona helping UFW attorneys defend the union against a lawsuit. Shortly after his death, his widow, Helen Chavez, donated his black nylon union jacket to the National Museum of American History, a branch of the Smithsonian.[39]

Chavez is buried at the National Chavez Center, on the headquarters campus of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), at 29700 Woodford-Tehachapi Road in the Keene community of unincorporated Kern County, California.[40][41]

He received belated full military honors from the US Navy at his graveside on April 23, 2015, the 22nd anniversary of his death.[42]



Colegio Cesar Chavez advertisement in the 1980 Mount Angel Oktoberfest issue of the Silverton Appeal Tribune

There is a portrait of Chavez in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.[43]

In 2003, the United States Postal Service honored Chavez with a postage stamp.[44]

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) nominated him three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.[45]

One of Chavez's grandchildren is the professional golfer Sam Chavez.

Awards and honors

In 1973, Chavez received the Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged.[46]

In 1992, Chavez was awarded the Catholic Church's Pacem in Terris Award, named after a 1963 encyclical by Pope John XXIII calling upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations.

On September 8, 1994, Chavez was presented posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. The award was received by his widow, Helen Chavez.

On December 6, 2006, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Chavez into the California Hall of Fame.[47]

Places and things named after Cesar Chavez

Chavez visiting Colegio Cesar Chavez.

Across the United States, and especially in California, there have been many parks, streets, schools, libraries, university buildings and other establishments named after Chavez. In addition, the census-designated place of Cesar Chavez, Texas is named after him.

Colegio Cesar Chavez, named after Chavez while he was still alive, was a four-year "college without walls" in Mount Angel, Oregon, intended for the education of Mexican-Americans, that ran from 1973 to 1983.[48]

On May 18, 2011, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced that the Navy would be naming the last of 14 Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships after Cesar Chavez.[49] The USNS Cesar Chavez was launched on May 5, 2012.[50]


The National Chavez Center, Keene, California.

In 2004, the National Chavez Center was opened on the UFW national headquarters campus in Keene by the César E. Chávez Foundation. It currently consists of a visitor center, memorial garden and his grave site. When it is fully completed, the 187-acre (0.76 km2) site will include a museum and conference center to explore and share Chavez's work.[40]

On September 14, 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior added the 187 acres (76 ha) Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz ranch to the National Register of Historic Places.[51]

On October 8, 2012, President Barack Obama designated the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument within the National Park system.[52]

California State University San Marcos's Chavez Plaza includes a statue to Chavez. In 2007, The University of Texas at Austin unveiled its own Cesar Chavez statue[53] on campus.

The Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 authorized the National Park Service to conduct a special resource study of sites that are significant to the life of Cesar Chavez and the farm labor movement in the western United States. The study evaluated the significance and suitability of sites significant to Cesar Chavez and the farm labor movement, and the feasibility and appropriateness of a National Park Service role in the management of any of these sites.[54]

Cesar Chavez Day

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Cesar Chavez Day poster.

Cesar Chavez's birthday, March 31, is a state holiday in California, Colorado, and Texas.[citation needed] It is intended to promote community service in honor of Chavez's life and work. Many, but not all, state government offices, community colleges, and libraries are closed. Many public schools in the three states are also closed. Chavez Day is an optional holiday in Arizona. Although it is not a federal holiday, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 31 "Cesar Chavez Day" in the United States, with Americans being urged to "observe this day with appropriate service, community, and educational programs to honor César Chávez's enduring legacy".[55]

Other commemorations

The heavily Hispanic city of Laredo, Texas, observes "Cesar Chavez Month" during March. Organized by the local League of United Latin American Citizens, a citizens' march is held in downtown Laredo on the last Saturday morning of March to commemorate Chavez. Among those attending are local politicians and students.[56]

In the Mission District, San Francisco a "Cesar Chavez Holiday Parade" is held on the second weekend of April, in honor of Cesar Chavez. The parade includes traditional Native American dances, union visibility, local music groups, and stalls selling Latino products.[57]

In popular culture

Chavez was referenced by Stevie Wonder in the song "Black Man" from the 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life.[58]

He is referenced in the 1998 American crime drama, American History X.

The 2014 American film César Chávez, starring Michael Peña as Chavez, covered Chavez's life in the 1960s and early 1970s.[59]


United Farm Workers


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  31. Rodel Rodis (January 30, 2007). "Philip Vera Cruz: Visionary Labor Leader". Retrieved May 18, 2011. "In one chapter of this book, Philip provides an account of his conflict with César Chávez over Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. This occurred in August 1977 when Marcos extended an invitation to Chávez to visit the Philippines. The invitation was coursed through a pro-Marcos former UFW leader, Andy Imutan, who carried it to César and lobbied him to visit to the Philippines." 
  32. Shaw, Randy (2008). Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 253. ISBN 978-0-520-25107-6. Retrieved May 18, 2011. "Further divisions emerged in August 1977 when Chávez was invited to visit the Philippines by the country's dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Filipino farmworkers had played a central role in launching the Delano grape strike in 1965 (see chapter 1), and Filipino activist Philip Vera Cruz had been a top union officer since 1966." 
  33. Pawel, Miriam (2010). The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in César Chávez's Farm Worker Movement. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 233. ISBN 978-1-60819-099-7. Retrieved May 18, 2011. "In the fall 1977 Chris found himself embroiled in a much more public confrontation. Chavez traveled to the Philippines, a misguided effort to reach out to Filipino workers who distrusted the union. Ferdinand Marcos hosted the UFW delegation. Chavez was quoted in the Washington Post praising the dictator's regime. Human rights advocates and religious leaders protested." 
  34. San Juan, Epifanio (2009). Toward Filipino self-determination: beyond transnational globalization. Albany: SUNY Press. p. 83. ISBN 978-1-4384-2723-2. Retrieved May 18, 2011. "This is also what Philip Vera Cruz found when, despite his public protest, he witnessed César Chávez endorsing the vicious Marcos dictatorship in the seventies." 
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  38. Ramirez, Gabriel (January 4, 2006). "Vegetarians Add Some Cultural Flare to Meals". Más Magazine. Bakersfield, California. Archived from the original on July 8, 2011. Retrieved February 25, 2011. "Cesar was a vegan. He didn’t eat any animal products. He was a vegan because he believed in animal rights but also for his health" 
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  49. "Navy names new ship for Cesar Chavez". May 18, 2011. Retrieved May 18, 2011. 
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Further reading

  • Bardacke, Frank. Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. New York and London: Verso 2011. ISBN 978-1-84467-718-4 (hbk.)
  • Bardacke, Frank. "Cesar's Ghost: Decline and Fall of the U.F.W.", The Nation (July 26, 1993) online version[dead link]
  • Bruns, Roger. Cesar Chavez: A Biography (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Burt, Kenneth C. "The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics," (2007).
  • Dalton, Frederick John. The Moral Vision of Cesar Chavez (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Daniel, Cletus E. "Cesar Chavez and the Unionization of California Farm Workers." ed. Dubofsky, Melvyn and Warren Van Tine. Labor Leaders in America. University of IL: 1987.
  • Etulain, Richard W. Cesar Chavez: A Brief Biography with Documents (2002), 138pp; by a leading historian. excerpt and text search
  • Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval, eds. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia. Cesar Chavez: A Triumph of Spirit (1995). (Highly favorable treatment.)
  • Hammerback, John C., and Richard J. Jensen. The Rhetorical Career of Cesar Chavez. (1998).
  • Jacob, Amanda Cesar Chavez Dominates Face Sayville: Mandy Publishers, 2005.
  • Jensen, Richard J., Thomas R. Burkholder, and John C. Hammerback. "Martyrs for a Just Cause: The Eulogies of Cesar Chavez", Western Journal of Communication, Vol. 67, 2003. online edition
  • Johnson, Andrea Shan. "Mixed Up in the Making: Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, and the Images of Their Movements". Ph.D dissertation U. of Missouri, Columbia 2006. 503 pp. DAI 2007 67(11): 4312-A. DA3242742. Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses.
  • LaBotz, Dan. Cesar Chavez and La Causa (2005), a short scholarly biography.
  • León, Luis D. "Cesar Chavez in American Religious Politics: Mapping the New Global Spiritual Line." American Quarterly 2007 59(3): 857–881. ISSN 0003-0678. Fulltext: Project Muse.
  • Levy, Jacques E. and Cesar Chavez. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa. (1975). ISBN 0-393-07494-3.
  • Matthiessen, Peter. Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution, (2nd ed. 2000) excerpt and text search[dead link]
  • Meister, Dick and Anne Loftis. A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers, (1977).
  • Orosco, Jose-Antonio. Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence (2008).
  • Prouty, Marco G. Cesar Chavez, the Catholic Bishops, and the Farmworkers' Struggle for Social Justice (University of Arizona Press; 185 pages; 2006). Analyzes the church's changing role from mediator to Chavez supporter in the farmworkers' strike that polarized central California's Catholic community from 1965 to 1970; draws on previously untapped archives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
  • Ross, Fred. Conquering Goliath : Cesar Chavez at the Beginning. Keene, California: United Farm Workers: Distributed by El Taller Grafico, 1989. ISBN 0-9625298-0-X.
  • Soto, Gary. Cesar Chavez: a Hero for Everyone. New York: Aladdin, 2003. ISBN 0-689-85923-6 and ISBN 0-689-85922-8 (pbk.)
  • Taylor, Ronald B. Chavez and the Farm Workers (1975) online edition

External links

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