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For years, Latino farmworkers suffered at the hands of corrupt businesses who underpaid laborers and took advantage of such workers.
In response to these intolerant and harmful practices, one Latino stood up for the rights of his community — Cesar Chavez. He created organizations and led strikes focused on La Causa, “a movement to organize Mexican American farm workers.”
Chavez’s action led to many protections for Latino workers throughout the U.S.
For Chavez, it was his desire to help fellow Latinos that spurred his action.
“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community,” he said. “Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
For Hispanic Heritage Month, we at Salud America! honor the life and legacy of Chavez.
Chavez and His Early Life and Path Toward Civil Rights Action
Cesar Chavez was born on March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona.
He was named after his paternal grandfather who came to America through Texas in 1898.
Chavez was a part of what his biographer Miriam Pawel called “a typical extended Mexican family.” She goes on to say that his family was, “not well-off, but they were comfortable, well clothed, and never hungry.” Still, this experience did play a role later in life.
Eventually, the Chavez family made their way to California during the Great Depression. This trend was common among Latinos during this time, many of whom sought work. They eventually landed in San Jose, specifically in one of the city’s impoverished Latino neighborhoods.
“There are vivid memories from my childhood–what we had to go through because of low wages and the conditions, basically because there was no union,” Chavez said. “I suppose if I wanted to be fair I could say that I’m trying to settle a personal score. I could dramatize it by saying that I want to bring social justice to farm workers. But the truth is that I went through a lot of hell, and a lot of people did. If we can even the score a little for the workers then we are doing something. Besides, I don’t know any other work I like to do better than this. I really don’t.”
While in school, Chavez experienced prejudice from his white peers.
This gave him first-hand insight into how racial/ethnic discrimination harms the lives of people of color.
Due to this and other struggles, Chavez dropped out of school at age 15 and later began working as a farm laborer.
Chavez and His Farm Work, Time in the U.S. Navy, and Life in California
Chavez joined full-time farm work alongside the other members of his family.
Eventually, he transitioned into a service with the U.S. Navy.
“In 1946, he joined the U.S. Navy, serving for two years in a segregated unit,” biographers from History write. “After his service was over, he returned to farmwork and married Helen Fabela, with whom he would eventually have eight children.”
After leaving military service in 1952, Chavez then began working in a San Jose lumberyard.
It was during this time that he began his work in activism as a grassroots organizer for the Latino civil rights group, Community Service Organization (CSO).
Chavez eventually became the executive director of CSO after 10 years of work in registering new voters and fighting racial and economic discrimination. However, this position was short lived as Chavez eventually resigned due to conflicts over the formation of farmworkers unions.
Still, this setback only seemed to propel Chavez into further civil rights work.
Chavez and the Fight for Farmworkers in the U.S.
For Chavez, his fight for Latino workers’ rights all comes down to helping the families who struggled due to inequitable treatment in the workplace.
“(Farm workers) are involved in the planting and the cultivation and the harvesting of the greatest abundance of food known in this society,” Chavez said. “They bring in so much food to feed you and me and the whole country and enough food to export to other places. The ironic thing and the tragic thing is that after they make this tremendous contribution, they don’t have any money or any food left for themselves.”
After leaving the CSO, Chavez went on to found the National Farm Workers Association.
Most notably, the group led the Grape Strike of 1965.
The strike lasted five years and expanded into a nationwide boycott of California grapes. Due to a leading a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966 and 25-day hunger strike in 1968, Chavez’s cause gained national attention.
“Chavez knew firsthand the struggles of the nation’s poorest and most powerless workers, who labored to put food on the nation’s tables while often going hungry themselves,” biographers from History write. “Not covered by minimum wage laws, many made as little as 40 cents an hour, and did not qualify for unemployment insurance.
Previous attempts to unionize farm workers had failed, as California’s powerful agricultural industry fought back with all the weight of their money and political power.
“The grape strike and boycott ended in 1970, with the farm workers reaching a collective bargaining agreement with major grape growers that increased the workers’ pay and gave them the right to unionize,” biographers from History write. “The NWFA and AWOC had merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which in 1971 became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).
In the end, Chavez noted that the victories won were due to hard work and community action.
“I remember with strong feelings the families who joined our movement and paid dues long before there was any hope of winning contracts,” Chavez said. “Sometimes, fathers and mothers would take money out of their meager food budgets just because they believed that farm workers could and must build their own union. I remember thinking then that with spirit like that… we had to win. No force on earth could stop us.”
It is this perspective that has lasted through the years.
Chavez’s Legacy for Latinos, Civil Rights
To this day, activists and protestors adopt Chavez’s style.
He said physical, in-person action is the best way to make a difference.
“The picket line is the best place to train organizers,” he said. “One day on the picket line is where a man makes his commitment. The longer on the picket line, the stronger the commitment. A lot of workers think they make their commitment by walking off the job when nobody sees them. But you get a guy to walk off the field when his boss is watching and, in front of the other guys, throw down his tools and march right to the picket line, that is the guy who makes our strike.
“The picket line is a beautiful thing because it makes a man more human.”
Moreover, members of Chavez’s family are keeping his work alive. His grandson, Alejandro Chavez, is an advocate for voting rights in America — especially for people of color.
Most recently, Alejandro led a “March On for Voting Rights” in Phoenix. He says he is working to further his grandfather’s dream.
“La causa is much bigger now,” Alejando told CNN.
“While we think of it as the Chicano movement and so forth, it’s really not. You’ve heard Black Lives Matter stand up for immigrants and for (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA) for Latinos. That’s part of la causa, right? So, to me, la causa never dies. It just grows, and the more we add to it, the stronger it gets.”
As time moves forward, Cesar Chavez will always be remembered as a hero for the Latino community and worker’s rights.
How Can You Help Latinos Fight for La Causa?
We can do our part to fight for health equity for Latinos and other people in your area.
Select your county name and get a customized Health Equity Report Card by Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio. You will see how your area stacks up in housing, transit, poverty, health care, healthy food, and other health equity issues. These compare to the rest of your state and nation.
You can email your Health Equity Report Card, share it on social media, and use it to make a case for community change to boost health equity.
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By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.