Cesar Estrada Chavez was one of the greatest labor leaders in
the United States. He fought for a better life for migrant farm
workers, founded the first successful farm workers' union, and
was the president of the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO. Cesar accomplished
this with a philosophy of non-violence.
Cesar Chavez was born on a
small farm near Yuma, Arizona, on March 31, 1927.
Parents and Grandparents
Cesar's grandparents were Cesario and Dorotea. Did
you know Cesar was named after his grandfather? Cesar's
grandfather was called Papa Chayo, and his grandmother was called
In 1888, Cesar's grandfather
moved from Chihuahua, Mexico, to the Arizona desert. He was seeking
a better life for his family. They settled in the Gila Valley,
near Yuma, Arizona. At this time, Arizona was a territory of the
United States. It became a state in 1912.
In 1924, Cesar's father, Librado,
married Juana Estrada. Like Cesar's grandfather, Juana was from
Chihuahua, Mexico. Librado and Juana had six children. They are
Rita, Cesar, Ricardo, Librado, Jr., Helena, and Vicky. Cesar was
the second child and oldest son.
Librado was a hard worker.
He farmed the land, ran a general store, and was elected the local
postmaster. On the farm, they raised horses, cows, grain, alfalfa,
vegetables, and watermelons.
In October, 1929, the Stock Market crashed which caused a severe
economic depression in the United States from 1929 to 1939. This
was called the Great Depression. During these hard times, it was
difficult for people to find work, and many families had little
or no food or shelter.
The economic situation was
made worse in the Southwest because there were severe droughts.
In 1937, Cesar's family lost their farm and belongings. Cesar
was ten years old. Cesar and his family migrated throughout the
Southwest looking for work in the fields and vineyards.
In 1938, the Chavez family lived in La Colonia Barrio in Oxnard,
California. The Chavez family became migrant farm workers. Migrant
farm workers are laborers who travel from one farm to another
farm, planting, harvesting, or picking different crops.
At this time, there were about
300,000 migrant farm workers in California. The Chavez family
picked different foods depending on the season. They picked grapes,
apricots, onions, walnuts, cherries, cantaloupes, cabbage, cotton,
broccoli, peas, carrots, and beets. Their wages were low, and
the work was difficult.
Migrant farm workers did not
have permanent homes because they traveled so much. They lived
in small, overcrowded, dirty, one-room shacks or tents. The housing
camps were called barrios. They did not have bathrooms, electricity,
or running water. Most of these migrant workers were of Mexican
In the first year as migrant
workers, the Chavez family earned about $300.
It was difficult for Cesar
to attend school because his family was always moving. This was
the same problem with children of other migrant workers. At one
point, Cesar counted more than thirty elementary schools he had
attended. School was also difficult because Cesar spoke only Spanish
at home, and Spanish was forbidden in school.
In 1939, Cesar's family moved
to East San Jose, California. They settled in the barrio of Sal
Si Puedes. Did you know Sal
Si Puedes means "Get Out If You Can?"
In 1942, Cesar graduated from
the eighth grade. He was fifteen years old. His father had been
injured in a car accident, and Cesar did not want his mother to
work. So Cesar left school and became a migrant farm worker to
help support his family. He worked in the fields full-time with
his brother and sister. One of their jobs was to thin lettuce
While working in the fields,
Cesar realized the owners and contractors exploited the migrant
farm workers. Cesar spoke out on behalf of the workers for higher
wages and better working conditions. The other workers did not
voice Cesar's views because their did not want to lose their jobs.
On December 7, 1941, the United States was attacked by the Japanese
at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The next day, December 8, the United
States declared war against Japan, and entered World War II.
In 1944, Cesar joined the
United States Navy. He was seventeen years old. He served two
years as a deck hand in the Western Pacific. In 1945, World War
II ended. In 1946, Cesar was discharged from the U.S. Navy. He
returned to work in the fields in California.
In 1947, Cesar joined the National Agricultural Workers Union.
This was the first labor union he joined. A union is a group of
workers joining together to seek fair treatment and better pay.
In 1948, Cesar married Helen
Fabela. They had met in 1942. They lived in Sal Si Puedes. Did
you know Cesar and Helen honeymooned by visiting all
the California Missions from Sonoma to San Diego? Cesar and Helen
had eight children and thirty-one grandchildren.
Helen shared Cesar's social
concerns. They taught migrant farm workers to read and write so
they could pass the test to gain U.S. citizenship.
Cesar began reading about St. Francis of Assisi and Mohandas K.
Gandhi. St. Francis was an Italian monk who lived from 1182 to
1226. He devoted his life to helping the poor. Gandhi was an Indian
politician and spiritual leader who lived from 1869 to 1948. He
practiced the philosophy of non-violence. Cesar was influenced
by both of these men, as well as the Civil Rights Leader Martin
Luther King, Jr. Cesar realized great men were those who set a
good example, and he adopted the philosophy of non-violence.
In June, 1952, Cesar met Fred Ross while working in an apricot
orchard outside San Jose, California. Ross was an organizer for
the Community Service Organization (CSO) and worked to help Mexican-Americans
throughout California. Ross wanted Cesar to help CSO inform the
migrant farm workers of their rights.
During the day, Cesar picked
apricots, and during the night, Cesar was a part-time organizer
for CSO. Cesar organized farm workers to vote and taught them
about their rights. Did you know
Cesar help register 2,000 workers to vote in two months?
Within several months, Cesar
became a full-time organizer with CSO. He continued to coordinate
voter registration drives. He also battled racial and economic
discrimination against Chicano residents and organized twenty-two
new CSO chapters across California and Arizona.
From 1958 to 1962, Cesar served
as the National Director for CSO. This was Cesar's first regular
Farm Workers Association (NFWA)
Cesar was committed to improving the lives of farm workers. He
wanted the farm workers to have a union because a union could
help them receive better pay and treatment.
In 1962, Cesar proposed the
CSO organize the farm workers. The CSO rejected his proposal.
On March 31, Cesar resigned his position with the CSO, moved his
family to Delano, California, and founded the National Farm Workers
Association (NFWA). It was the first union for farm workers in
the United States.
Cesar was elected president
and executive officer of the NFWA. Dolores Huerta and Gilbert
Padilla were elected as vice-presidents. Other important people
in the organization were Manuel Chavez (Cesar's cousin) and Reverend
Jim Drake. The dues were $3.50 per month.
Cesar traveled to dozens of
farm communities in California to build his base of dedicated
farm workers. His wife labored in the fields to support the family.
On September 30, 1962, Cesar
and 300 members of the NFWA met in Fresno, California, for the
first convention of the NFWA. They approved their flag and motto.
Their flag was a red background with a black eagle in a white
circle in the center. Their motto was "Viva La Causa." Did
you know "Viva La Causa" means "Long Live the Cause?"
Cesar was a strong leader,
and the workers began to demand fair pay and better working conditions.
By 1964, the NFWA had 1,000 due-paying members. Cesar started
the newspaper, El Malcriado. It was the official voice
of the NFWA. By 1965, the NFWA had over 1,200 members.
Five Year Delano Grape Strike and Boycott
On September 8, 1965, the Filipino workers of the Agricultural
Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) went on strike demanding from
the grape growers higher wages, better living conditions, and
fair hiring practices. A strike is a form of protest when workers
stop working until their demands are met and conditions are changed.
Did you know "huelga" means
strike in Spanish?
On September 16, the NFWA
joined the AWOC strike against the grape growers. September 16
is Mexico's Independence Day. Cesar and the NFWA adhered to the
philosophy of non-violence and asked that the strike be non-violent.
Cesar used strikes, boycotts, pickets, fasts, and marches as forms
of non-violence protests. In 1965, the strikers took a pledge
of non-violence. Did you know
Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. also practiced the philosophy
A month after the strike began,
the NFWA began picketing grape growers and boycotting the buying
of grapes. A picket occurs during a strike when workers stand
outside of the business and persuade people from entering. Did
you know a person who stands in a picket line is also
called a picket? A boycott is an act of protest in which people
are urged to stop buying from or dealing with a company in order
to force the company to meet certain demands.
In 1966, U.S. Senator Robert
F. Kennedy conducted subcommittee hearings on agricultural labor.
As a result, Senator Kennedy openly supported the NFWA grape strike
The NFWA first picketed at
a San Francisco pier where grapes were being unloaded.
In December, 1965, the NFWA
targeted the Schenley Vineyards Corporation. On
March 16, 1966, Cesar organized a march from Delano to Sacramento
(the capital of California) to generate support from the nation
and from California Governor Pat Brown regarding the strike against
the grape growers. There were 75 people at the beginning of the
march. On April 10, the marchers arrived in Sacramento. There
were over 10,000 people present at the rally. It was a 25-day,
340-mile march. In 1966, the Schenley Vineyards Corporation agreed
to sign a contract with NFWA. This was the first contract for
farm workers in the United States.
Next, the NFWA concentrated
on the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation in 1966. The Di Giorgio Fruit
Corporation was the largest grape grower in the central valley.
Before the election was held to determine who would represent
the farm workers in August, 1966, the NFWA and the AWOC merged.
The new organization was called the United Farm Workers Organizing
Committee (UFWOC). The workers chose the UFWOC to represent them.
In 1967, the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation agreed to sign a contract.
The UFWOC then focused on
the Giumarra Vineyards Corporation in 1967. The Giumarra Vineyards
Corporation was the largest producer of table grapes in the United
States. Giumarra Vineyards Corporation tried to avoid the boycott
by using labels from other companies.
On February 14, 1968, Cesar
began his first fast to put a stop to the violence against the
pickets in the Giumarra strike. A fast is when a person goes without
food for a period of time. It was a 25-day fast, and it reaffirm
the UFWOC's commitment to non-violence. U.S. Senator Robert F.
Kennedy visited Cesar in Delano for this fast. When the fast ended
on March 10, 1968, Cesar, Cesar's wife, Cesar's mother, Senator
Robert Kennedy, and 4,000 people attended a mass.
Robert Kennedy called Cesar
"one of the heroic figures of out time." Martin Luther King, Jr.
also supported Cesar's fast, and King sent Cesar a telegram stating,
"Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom,
for dignity, and for humanity." At the end of the fast, Cesar
gave a speech, stating, "Our lives are all that really belong
to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines what kind
of men we are."
The UFWOC asked for a nationwide
boycott of all California table grapes to support the Giumarra
strike. The boycott spread to Canada and Europe, and grapes sales
decreased. May 10, 1969, was declared International Grape Boycott
Day. The shipment of table grapes was almost completely stopped
to the cities of Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal,
In 1969, Cesar organized another
march. This march went through the Coachella and Imperial valleys
to the border of the United States and Mexico. It protested the
use of illegal immigrants to replace the workers on strike. Cesar
was joined by Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale.
In 1970, Giumarra Vineyards
Corporation signed the contracts. The strike against the grape
growers of California officially ended on July 29, 1970. It had
lasted five years. Did you know
it was the largest strike in the history of U.S. labor?
Lettuce Strike and Boycott
Cesar wanted to help all farm workers, and he started boycotting
all California vegetables.
On August 2, 1970, Cesar and
the UFWOC called for a strike for lettuce migrant workers. On
the third day, there was an estimated 10,000 migrant workers on
strike. Cesar was arrested for violating an injunction against
picketing. An injunction against picketing means the court ordered
that Cesar and his group were not allowed to picket. Cesar continued
to picket, and he was put in jail for 20 days. Coretta Scott King
and Ethel Kennedy visited Cesar in jail. They are the wives of
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. King and Kennedy
were both assassinated in 1968.
Cesar expanded his efforts
across the nation by helping the Florida citrus workers.
Farm Workers (UFW)
In 1971, Cesar and his family moved to Keene, California. Keene
is located southwest of Bakersfield. This was the new headquarters
for the UFWOC . It was called "La Paz."
On May 12, 1972, Cesar began
another fast in Arizona to recall Governor Jack Williams. Medical
conditions forced Cesar to end the fast on June 4. The fast did
not succeed in recalling Williams. However, it led to registering
voters which later helped to elect Raul Castro in 1974. Did
you know Castro was the first Mexican American governor
in Arizona's history?
In early 1972, the UFWOC received
its charter from the AFL-CIO, and it became a full-fledged union.
In 1973, the UFWOC changed its name to the United Farm Workers,
AFL-CIO (UFW). AFL-CIO stands for the American Federation of Labor-Congress
of Industrial Organizations.
On September 21, 1973, the
UFW held a Constitutional Convention in Fresno, California. There
were 346 delegates who represented 60,000 farm workers. U.S. Senator
Edward Kennedy delivered a speech.
In 1973, the farm workers'
three-year contracts were up for re-negotiation with the grape
growers. This time, the grape growers signed with the Teamsters.
The Teamsters did not represent the farm workers, and 10,000 farm
workers in California walked out of the fields in protest. The
strike began in the Coachella and San Joaquin valleys. Many of
the striking farm workers were arrested or beaten. Some were shot
and killed. To stop the violence, Cesar called off the strike
after three months, and called for a national wide protest of
By 1975, 17 million Americans
refused to buy grapes. This forced the grape growers to support
the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act. This act was supported
by California Governor Jerry Brown. It was the first bill of rights
for farm workers in the continental United States. It protected
the right of farm workers to unionized and boycott, and it guaranteed
secret ballots in farm workers' union elections.
In 1975, Cesar led another
march through the Imperial and San Joaquin valleys. It was a 1,000-mile
march to advertise upcoming union elections.
In 1977, the UFW and the Teamsters
agreed the UFW would represent all farm workers.
By 1978, the UFW lifted the
boycotts on grapes and lettuce. The UFW decided to only boycott
By the early 1980's, tens
of thousands of farm workers were working under UFW contracts.
As a result, they were given higher pay, family health coverage,
pension benefits, and other contract protections.
In 1982, George Deukmejian
was elected Governor of California. The growers in California
contributed over one million dollars to his campaign. The farm
labor board stopped enforcing the laws of the 1975 Agricultural
Labor Relations Act. Thousands of farm workers lost the UFW contracts.
In 1984, Cesar called for
another grape boycott. This boycott also included the protest
of the use of pesticide residues on fruit. Pesticides are chemicals
sprayed on crops, and the use of pesticides poisoned the grape
workers and their children. The boycott was referred to as the
"Wrath of Grapes" campaign.
In 1985, Cesar led a ten-mile
march to protest Governor Deukmejian's farm labor policies.
In 1987, Cesar and the UFW
called for another boycott of grapes to call attention to the
danger of pesticides sprayed on the grapes. The Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) claimed five poisons used in pesticides
might be dangerous to the farm workers' health. The growers ignored
the EPA's position and continued to use the poisons.
In July and August, 1988,
Cesar fasted for 36 days to protest the pesticide poisoning of
grape workers and their children. It was called "Fast for Life."
He ended the fast on August 21, and Reverend Jesse Jackson took
up the fast for three days. Jackson then passed the fast to other
leaders and celebrities. The fast was passed to Martin Sheen (actor),
Reverend J. Lowery (President SCLC), Edward Olmos (actor), Emilio
Estevez (actor), Kerry Kennedy (daughter of Robert F. Kennedy),
Peter Chacon (Legislator), Julie Carmen (actress), Danny Glover
(actor), Carly Simon (singer), and Whoopi Goldberg (actress).
On April 23, 1990, Cesar signed
an agreement with the Mexican government allowing Mexican farm
workers in the United States to provide medical benefits to their
families in Mexico.
In 1992, Cesar led vineyard
walkouts in the Coachella and San Joaquin valleys. This led to
an industry-wide pay increase for grape workers. It was the first
industry-wide pay increase in eight years.
you know Cesar never owned a house or a car, and he
never earned more than $6,000 a year?
"Sí se puede" was Cesar's motto in life. It means "Yes,
it can be done."
On November 12, 1990, Cesar
received the Aguila Azteca (The Aztec Eagle) from the President
of Mexico. This is Mexico's highest civilian award. It is given
to people of Mexican heritage who make major contributions outside
On April 23, 1993, Cesar Chavez
died in San Luis, Arizona. He was 66 years old. San Luis is near
Yuma, Arizona. On April 29, more than 50,000 people attended Cesar's
funeral at Delano, California. It was the largest funeral of any
labor leader in the history of the United States. Cesar is buried
in a rose garden at La Paz, in Keene, California.
On March 4, 1994, the UFW
and 17,000 farm workers marched 340 miles from Delano to Sacramento.
At this time, the UFW's leader was Cesar's son-in-law, Arturo
S. Rodriguez. This march was a repeat of the march in 1966, and
it demonstrated the UFW was strong and Cesar's dream of a national
union for farm workers is possible.
On August 8, 1994, Cesar received
the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is the highest civilian
honor in the United States. Did
you know Cesar was the second Mexican American to receive
this medal? It was presented posthumously to Cesar (given after
his death) by President Bill Clinton. Helen Chavez received the
medal at a White House ceremony. Six of Cesar's and Helen's children
attended the ceremony.
In 1994, the Cesar E. Chavez
Foundation was created to maximize human potential to improve
the world by preserving, promoting, and applying the legacy and
universal values of civil rights and farm leader Cesar E. Chavez.
The headquarters are located at La Paz.
On September 2, 1994, the
Cesar Chavez Holiday bill was signed into law by California Governor
Pete Wilson. It designated March 31 (or the appropriate Monday
or Friday following or preceding that date) as Cesar Chavez Day.
It is a state holiday to promote service to the communities of
California in honor of Cesar's life and work.
In addition, there are many
schools, parks, streets, libraries, public facilities, awards,
and scholarships named in honor of Cesar E. Chavez.