Through his lifelong dedication to the cause of farmworkers, Cesar Chavez became the most revered figure in the history of the Hispanic American civil rights movement.Chavez knew well the struggles of migrant farmworkers. One of five children, he was born on a farm owned by his parents in Yuma, Arizona. His parents were the children of Mexican immigrants.
They lost the farm when Chavez was ten years old, and the family then moved to Oxnard, California, where they became migrant farmworkers.In 1942, Chavez’s father was injured in an accident and could no longer work, so Chavez left school and became a full-time farmworker.
He had attended almost forty schools because of his family’s migrant status, but he had obtained only an eighth-grade education.During the 1950s, Chavez became involved in the Community Service Organization, an advocacy group for Mexicans and Mexican Americans. He became general director, then resigned from the organization over its lack of interest in forming a farmworkers’ union.
In 1962, Chavez took his lifetime savings of $1,200 and formed the National Farm Workers Association in Delano, California. He spent the next several years canvassing the fields of California’s Central Valley, encourag¬ ing farmworkers to join the union.In 1965, Chavez’s union joined another union in a strike against growers.
The strike captured headlines, and La Causa (The Cause) had been born. Over the next thirty years, Chavez utilized the successful techniques of other labor unions and the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to lead an impressive movement. Chavez stuck to a firm belief in nonviolence, and through marches, rallies, and boycotts, he won the sup¬ port of political leaders and the general public.
Many growers eventually agreed to recog¬ nize the National Farm Workers Association as the representative of farmworkers. The union became an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. In 1972, it took the name United Farm Workers, or UFW. It became the largest union of agricul¬ tural workers in California. At one point, it had more than fifty thousand members.
Chavez believed the “truest act of courage… is to sacrifice ourselves in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice.” He held several fasts, one lasting thirty-six days, to call attention to La Causa. In 1975, California lawmakers created the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. It gave farmworkers the right to organize and negoti¬ ate for better wages and working conditions.
Chavez was an inspiration to millions, even those who never worked in the fields. When he died in 1993, more than thirty thousand mourners marched through the streets of Delano, where his funeral was held. In 2000, California governor Gray Davis signed a law designating March 31, Chavez’s birthday, as a state holiday.