In 1938 he and his family moved to California. He lived in La Colonia
Barrio in Oxnard for a short period, returning to Arizona several
months later. They returned to California in June 1939 and this time
settled in San Jose. They lived in the barrio called Sal Si Puedes
-"Get Out If You Can." Cesar thought the only way to get out of the
circle of poverty was to work his way up and send the kids to college.
He and his family worked in the fields of California from Brawley
to Oxnard, Atascadero, Gonzales, King City, Salinas, McFarland, Delano,
Wasco, Selma, Kingsburg, and Mendota.
The story of Cesar Estrada Chavez begins near
Yuma, Arizona. Cesar was born on March 31, 1927. He was named
after his grandfather, Cesario. Regrettably, the story of
Cesar Estrada Chavez also ends near Yuma, Arizona. He passed
away on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, a small village near
He learned about justice or rather injustice
early in his life. Cesar grew up in Arizona; the small adobe
home, where Cesar was born was swindled from them by dishonest
Anglos. Cesar's father agreed to clear eighty acres of land
and in exchange he would receive the deed to forty acres of
land that adjoined the home. The agreement was broken and
the land sold to a man named Justus Jackson. Cesar's dad went
to a lawyer who advised him to borrow money and buy the land.
Later when Cesar's father could not pay the interest on the
loan the lawyer bought back the land and sold it to the original
owner. Cesar learned a lesson about injustice that he would
never forget. Later, he would say, The love for justice that
is in us is not only the best part of our being but it is
also the most true to our nature.
He did not like school as a child, probably because he spoke only
Spanish at home. The teachers were mostly Anglo and only spoke English.
Spanish was forbidden in school. He remembers being punished with
a ruler to his knuckles for violating the rule. He also remembers
that some schools were segregated and he felt that in the integrated
schools he was like a monkey in a cage. He remembers having to listen
to a lot of racist remarks. He remembers seeing signs that read
whites only. He and his brother, Richard, attended thirty-seven
schools. He felt that education had nothing to do with his farm
worker/migrant way of life. In 1942 he graduated from the eighth
grade. Because his father, Librado, had been in an accident and
because he did not want his mother, Juana, to work in the fields,
he could not to go to high school, and instead became a migrant
While his childhood school education was not the best, later in
life, education was his passion. The walls of his office in La Paz
(United Farm Worker Headquarters ) are lined with hundreds of books
ranging from philosophy, economics, cooperatives, and unions, to
biographies on Gandhi and the Kennedys'. He believed that, "The
end of all education should surely be service to others," a belief
that he practiced until his untimely death.
In 1944 he joined the Navy at the age of seventeen. He served two
years and in addition to discrimination, he experienced strict regimentation.
In 1948 Cesar married Helen Fabela. They honeymooned in California
by visiting all the California Missions from Sonoma to San Diego
(again the influence of education). They settled in Delano and started
their family. First Fernando, then Sylvia, then Linda, and five
more children were to follow.
Cesar returned to San Jose where he met and was influenced by Father
Donald McDonnell. They talked about farm workers and strikes. Cesar
began reading about St. Francis and Gandhi and nonviolence. After
Father McDonnell came another very influential person, Fred Ross.
Cesar became an organizer for Ross' organization, the Community
Service Organization - CSO. His first task was voter registration.
THE UNITED FARM WORKERS IS BORN
For a long time in 1962, there were very few union dues paying members.
By 1970 the UFW got grape growers to accept union contracts and had
effectively organized most of that industry, at one point in time
claiming 50,000 dues paying members. The reason was Cesar Chavez's
tireless leadership and nonviolent tactics that included the Delano
grape strike, his fasts that focused national attention on farm workers
problems, and the 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966.
The farm workers and supporters carried banners with the black eagle
with HUELGA (strike) and VIVA LA CAUSA (Long live our cause). The
marchers wanted the state government to pass laws which would permit
farm workers to organize into a union and allow collective bargaining
agreements. Cesar made people aware of the struggles of farm workers
for better pay and safer working conditions. He succeeded through
nonviolent tactics (boycotts, pickets, and strikes). Cesar Chavez
and the union sought recognition of the importance and dignity of
all farm workers.
| ||In 1962 Cesar founded the National Farm Workers
Association, later to become the United Farm Workers - the UFW.
He was joined by Dolores Huerta and the union was born. That
same year Richard Chavez designed the UFW Eagle and Cesar chose
the black and red colors. Cesar told the story of the birth
of the eagle. He asked Richard to design the flag, but Richard
could not make an eagle that he liked. Finally he sketched one
on a piece of brown wrapping paper. He then squared off the
wing edges so that the eagle would be easier for union members
to draw on the handmade red flags that would give courage to
the farm workers with their own powerful symbol. Cesar made
reference to the flag by stating, "A symbol is an important
thing. That is why we chose an Aztec eagle. It gives |
pride . . . When people see it they know it means dignity."
It was the beginning of La Causa a cause that was supported by
organized labor, religious groups, minorities, and students. Cesar
Chavez had the foresight to train his union workers and then to
send many of them into the cities where they were to use the boycott
and picket as their weapon.
Cesar was willing to sacrifice his own life so that the union would
continue and that violence was not used. Cesar fasted many times.
In 1968 Cesar went on a water only, 25 day fast. He repeated the
fast in 1972 for 24 days, and again in 1988, this time for 36 days.
What motivated him to do this? He said, Farm workers everywhere
are angry and worried that we cannot win without violence. We have
proved it before through persistence, hard work, faith and willingness
to sacrifice. We can win and keep our own self-respect and build
a great union that will secure the spirit of all people if we do
it through a rededication and recommitment to the struggle for justice
Many events precipitated the fast, especially
the terrible suffering of the farm workers and their children,
the crushing of farm worker rights, the dangers of pesticides,
and the denial of fair and free elections.
Cesar said about the fast, " A fast is first
and foremost personal. It is a fast for the purification of
my own body, mind, and soul. The fast is also a heartfelt
prayer for purification and strengthening for all those who
work beside me in the farm worker movement. The fast is alsoan
act of penance for those in positions of moral authority and
for all men and women activists who know what is right and
just, who know that they could and should do more. The fast
is finally a declaration of non-cooperation with supermarkets
who promote and sell and profit fromCalifornia table grapes.
During the past few years I have been studying the plague
of pesticides on our land and our food," Cesar continued "The
evil is far greater than even I had thought it to be, it threatens
to choke out the life of our people and also the life system
that supports us all. This solution to this deadly crisis
will not be found in the arrogance of the powerful, but in
solidarity with the weak and helpless. I pray to God that
this fast will be a preparation for a multitude of simple
deeds for justice. Carried out by men and women whose hearts
are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with
us, for a better world. Together, all things are possible."
Cesar Chavez completed his 36-day Fast for Life on August 21, 1988.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson took up where Cesar left off, fasting
on water for three days before passing on the fast to celebrities
and leaders. The fast was passed to Martin Sheen, actor; the Reverend
J. Lowery, President SCLC; Edward Olmos, actor; Emilio Estevez,
actor; Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, Peter Chacon,
legislator, Julie Carmen, actress; Danny Glover, actor; Carly Simon,
singer; and Whoopi Goldberg, actress.
THE DEATH OF CESAR CHAVEZ
Cesar Estrada Chavez died peacefully in his sleep on April
23, 1993 near Yuma, Arizona, a short distance from the small
family farm in the Gila River Valley where he was born more
than 66 years before.
The founder and president of the United Farm Workers of America,
AFL-CIO was in Yuma helping UFW attorneys defend the union
against a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church Inc., a giant Salinas,
Calif.-based lettuce and vegetable producer. Church demanded
that the farm workers pay millions of dollars in damages resulting
from a UFW boycott of its lettuce during the 1980's. Rather
than bring the legal action in a state where the boycott actually
took place, such as California or New York, Church "shopped
around" for a friendly court in conservative, agribusiness-dominated
Arizona-where there had been no boycott activity.
"Cesar gave his last ounce of strength defending the farm workers
in this case," stated his successor, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez,
who was with him in Arizona during the trial. He died standing up
for their First Amendment right to speak out for themselves. He
believed in his heart that the farm workers were right in boycotting
Bruce Church Inc. lettuce during the l980's and he was determined
to prove that in court." (When the second multimillion dollar judgement
for Church was later thrown out by an appeal's court, the company
signed a UFW contract in May 1996.
After the trial recessed at about 3 p.m. on Thursday, April 22,
Cesar spent part of the afternoon driving through Latino neighborhoods
in Yuma that he knew as a child. Many Chavezes still live in the
He arrived about 6 p.m. in San Luis, Arizona-about 20 miles from
Yuma, at the modest concrete-block home of Dofla Maria Hau, a former
farm worker and longtime friend. Cesar and eight other UFW leaders
and staff were staying at her house in a poor farm worker neighborhood
not far from the Mexican border.
Cesar ate dinner at around 9 p.m. and presided over a brief meeting
to review the day's events. He had just finished two days of often
grueling examination by attorneys for Bruce Church Inc.
He talked to his colleagues about taking care of themselves-a recent
recurring theme with Cesar because he was well aware of the long
hours required from him and other union officers and staff. Still,
he was in good spirits despite being exhausted after prolonged questioning
on the witness stand; he complained about feeling some weakness
when doing his evening exercises.
The UFW founder went to bed at about 10 or 10:30 p.m. A union staff
member said he later saw a reading light shining from Cesar's room.
The light was still on at 6 a.m. the next morning. That was not
seen as unusual. Cesar usually woke up in the early hours of the
morning well before dawn to read, write or meditate.
When he had not come out by 9 a.m., his colleagues entered his
bedroom found that Cesar had died apparently, according to authorities,
at night in his sleep.
He was found lying on his back with his head turned to the left.
His shoes were off and he still wore his clothes from the day before.
In his right hand was a book on Native American crafts. There was
a peaceful smile on his face.
THE LAST MARCH WITH CESAR CHAVEZ
| On April 29, 1993, Cesar Estrada
Chavez was honored in death by those he led in life. More than
50,000 mourners came to honor the charismatic labor leader at
the site of his first public fast in 1968 and his last in 1988,
the United Farm Workers Delano Field Office at "Forty Acres."
It was the largest funeral of any labor leader in the history
of the U.S. They came in caravans from Florida to California
to pay respect to a man whose strength was in his simplicity.
Farm workers, family members, friends and union staff took
turns standing vigil over the plain pine coffin which held
the body of Cesar Chavez. Among the honor guard were many
celebrities who had supported Chavez throughout his years
of struggle to better the lot of farmworkers throughout America.
Many of the mourners had marched side by side with Chavez during
his tumultuous years in the vineyards and farms of America. For
the last time, they came to march by the side of the man who had
taught them to stand up for their rights, through nonviolent protest
and collective bargaining.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney, who celebrated the funeral mass, called
Chavez "a special prophet for the worlds' farm workers." Pall bearers,
including crews of these workers, Chavez children and grandchildren,
then carried their fallen leader, resting at last, from the Memorial
Park to Forty Acres.
The death of Chavez marked an era of dramatic changes in American
agriculture. His contributions would be eroded, and others would
have to shoulder the burden of his work. But, Cesar Chavez, who
insisted that those who labor in the earth were entitled to share
fairly in the rewards of their toil, would never be forgotten.
As Luis Valdez said, "Cesar, we have come to plant your heart like
a seed . . . the farm workers shall harvest in the seed of your
FINAL RESTING PLACE/FINAL RECOGNITION
The body of Cesar Chavez was taken to La Paz, the UFW's California
headquarters, by his family and UFW leadership. He was laid
to rest near a bed of roses, in front of his office.
On August 8, 1994, at a White House ceremony, Helen Chavez,
Cesar's widow, accepted the Medal of Freedom for her late
husband from President Clinton. In the citation accompanying
America's highest civilian honor which was awarded posthumously,
the President lauded Chavez for having "faced formidable,
often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence.
And he was victorious. Cesar Chavez left our world better
than he found it, and his legacy inspires us still. He was
for his own people a Moses figure," the President declared.
"The farm workers who labored in the fields and yearned for
respect and self-sufficiency pinned their hopes on this remarkable
man who, with faith and discipline, soft spoken humility and
amazing inner strength, led a very courageous life"
The citation accompanying the award noted how Chavez was a farm
worker from childhood who "possessed a deep personal understanding
of the plight of migrant workers, and he labored all his years to
lift their lives." During his lifetime, Chavez never earned more
than $5,000 a year. The late Senator Robert Kennedy called him "one
of the heroic figures of our time."
Chavez's successor, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, thanked the
president on behalf of the United Farm Workers and said, "Every
day in California and in other states where farm workers are organizing,
Cesar Chavez lives in their hearts. Cesar lives wherever Americans'
he inspired work nonviolently for social change."