Cesar Chavez

Farmworker (1927 – 1993)

painting of Cesar Chavez, by Octavio OcampoMarch 2006 marks the 40th anniversary of Cesar Chavez’s pilgrimage from Delano, California, to the state Capitol in Sacramento to draw national attention to the struggles and conditions of farm workers.  People will celebrate by learning how to act locally to address concerns of poverty and injustice.  This is the legacy of Cesar Chavez:  helping people to help themselves. “A solution to this deadly crisis will not be found in the arrogance of the powerful, but in solidarity with the weak and helpless.”  Chavez, who never made more than $6000 a year, enriched the lives of the poor not by financial aid, but by empowering them to realize their inherent resources to transform their lives and communities.

-- Margaret Wakeley

“When you sacrifice, you force others to sacrifice.  It’s an extremely powerful weapon.”

In the early 1960s Cesar Chavez wrote a new chapter in the history of the American labor movement by organizing the first successful union of farmworkers.  Through his commitment to nonviolence and his deep faith in the justice of his cause, he transformed a local labor struggle into a moral cause that brought hope to the hopeless and aroused the conscience of the nation.

Chavez was born in 1927 to a Mexican-American family in the Southwest.  During the Depression his family lost their small farm and were forced to join the tide of migrant farmworkers traveling up and down the West Coast.  As a child Chavez himself performed stoop labor in the fields as his family followed the crops.  Though he attended thirty-seven schools, he never advanced beyond the seventh grade.  Farmworkers were notoriously the poorest and most exploited of American workers, unorganized and deliberately excluded from the protection of most labor laws.

By the time Chavez was a young man with a wife and a growing family, he was eager to move as far away as possible from the poverty of his upbringing.  But he was influenced by a priest who instilled in him a passion for social justice, and later by a community activist who trained him in the techniques of organization.  Chavez moved to Delano, California, with the determination to organize the farmworkers.  This was the beginning of what would become the United Farmworkers Union (UFW).

To start with, Chavez believed that it was necessary to impart a sense of dignity and community to the farmworkers.  This union would not rely on outside funding but on the basic principles of sacrifice and solidarity.  All who signed up with the union would pay $3.50 a month in dues – a small amount that nevertheless represented a real hardship for many struggling families.  Furthermore, those who worked for the union would make a commitment to voluntary poverty.  Chavez himself, like the humblest organizer, lived on a salary of $5 a week plus basic expenses.  The second nonnegotiable principle was a commitment to nonviolence, a refusal to respond in kind no matter what the provocation.  The strength of the movement, ultimately, would rely on the moral character of its efforts.

Cesar Chavez speaking at grape boycottThroughout the 1960s support for the UFW cause spread across the country as Chavez added a consumer boycott of table grapes to the strikes and picket lines that were the basic tools of the struggle.  Marches by the UFW often had a religious character, reinforced by public prayer, banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the presence of the many clergy and religious who identified with the cause.  In 1968 Chavez undertook a twenty-five-day fast, an effort to strengthen the discipline and morale of the movement.  When he ended the fast, Robert F. Kennedy, a strong supporter, was there to break bread with him.  Another early and loyal supporter was Dorothy Day, who in 1973 was arrested at the age of seventy-five while walking on a UFW picket line in California.

The nonviolence of the UFW was sorely tested over the years; at times the growers and rival unions resorted to brutal tactics in their effort to intimidate the farmworkers.  The movement had its martyrs.  But over and over again when faced with defeat, Chavez drew on the power of his personal commitment and charisma to breath new life into the struggle.

At the time of his death on April 23, 1993, the United Farmworkers had passed the crest of their success of a decade before.  The number of unionized workers was down and many contracts had been lost.  To some extent this reflected a certain “compassion fatigue” on the part of the public, who Cesar Chavez with small childcould no longer be counted on to provide support for the cause. Nevertheless, thanks to Chavez’s lifetime of efforts and the protective legislation he inspired, the farmworkers of America, although still poor, were less powerless, less hopeless. And he had left behind a remarkable witness to the power of nonviolence and the cause of justice.  When he broke his long fast in 1968, he expressed the convictions and faith that underlay his life:

When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us.  So it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of people we are.  It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life.  I am convinced that the truest act of courage is to sacrifice ourselves for others in totally nonviolent struggle for justice.  To be human is to suffer for others.  God help us to be human! 

Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David

Additional Resources
See:  Ronald B. Taylor, Chavez and the Farm Workers (Boston: Beacon, 1975); Marjorie Hope and James Young,  The Struggle for Humanity (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1979).

The Cesar E. Chavez Foundation preserves, promotes, and applies Chavez's legacy by encouraging people to follow his powerful example in their personal lives and communities.