César Chávez

César Chávez was born in Arizona in 1927. His parents were farmers and business owners. But in 1937, the family lost its farm because of a bad business deal. Here is what happened next.

     By 1938, the Chávez family had joined some 300,000 migrant workers; they traveled all over California, picking whatever was in season. The migrant workers had no permanent homes. They lived in dingy, overcrowded quarters, without bathrooms, electricity or running water. Sometimes they lived in the pickup trucks in which they traveled. Like the Chávez family, most migrant workers were of Mexican descent. ...
César Chávez worked part time in the fields while he was in school. After graduation, he began to work full time. He preferred working in the vineyards because grape pickers generally stayed in the same place for a longer time. He kept noticing that the labor contractors and the landowners exploited the workers. He tried reasoning with the farm owners about higher pay and better working conditions. But most of his fellow workers would not support him for fear of losing their jobs. As a solitary voice, Chávez had no power.
In 1944, he joined the United States Navy. At the end of his tour of duty, he returned to California to work in the fields. In 1948, he married a young woman named Helen Fabela, who shared his social concerns. He began teaching Mexican farm workers to read and write so they could take the test to become American citizens. He hoped that, as citizens, his fellow farm workers would be less afraid to join him in his efforts to improve working conditions.
One day, a young man from the local Community Service Organization approached Chávez. He wanted him to join the organization to help tell the migrant workers about their rights. Chávez became a part-time organizer for the group. During the day, he picked apricots on a farm. In the evening, he organized farm workers to register to vote. He was so successful that he registered more than 2,000 workers in just two months. But he was so busy helping the farm workers that he neglected his own work. As a result, he lost his job.
He then went to work full time for the Community Service Organization. He had to organize meetings to tell workers of their rights. He worried because he felt he wasn’t a good speaker. At first, he did more listening than speaking. In time, he grew more confident and found that people listened to him and liked his message. But it still was difficult to persuade the workers to fight for their rights. They were always afraid of losing their jobs.
By 1962, he could no longer stand to see the workers being taken advantage of, watching as they worked long hours for low pay. At the age of 35, he left his own well-paid job to devote all his time to organizing the farm workers into a union. His wife had to become a fruit picker in the fields to feed their children.
Chávez traveled from camp to camp organizing the workers. In each camp, he recruited a few followers …. At the end of six months, 300 members of the National Farm Workers Union, as the group was first called, met in Fresno, Calif. At that first meeting, they approved their flag — a red background with a black eagle in a white circle in the center. “La Causa” (The Cause) was born.
With a strong leader to represent them, the workers began to demand their rights — fair pay and better working conditions. Without these rights, no one would work in the fields. A major confrontation occurred in 1965. The grape growers didn’t listen to the union’s demands, and the farm hands wanted to strike. Chávez wanted to avoid a strike. But he was finally convinced there was no other way. The workers left the fields, and unharvested grapes began to rot on the vines. The growers hired illegal workers and brought in strikebreakers and thugs to beat up the strikers.
The dispute was bitter. Union members — Chávez included — were jailed repeatedly. But public officials, religious leaders and ordinary citizens from all across the United States flocked to California to march in support of the farm workers. Then, in 1970, some grape growers signed agreements with the union. The union lifted the grape boycott, and its members began to pick grapes again. That same year, Chávez thought that even people who could not travel to California could show their support for migrant workers. He appealed for a nationwide boycott of lettuce. People from all parts of the United States who sympathized with the cause of the farm workers refused to buy lettuce. Some even picketed in front of supermarkets.
By 1973, the union had changed its name to the United Farm Workers of America. Relations with the grape growers had once again deteriorated, so a grape boycott was added to the boycott of lettuce. On several occasions, Chávez fasted to protest the violence that arose between the growers and the pickers. One of his fasts lasted for 25 days. Finally, by 1978, some of the workers’ conditions [demands] were met, and the United Farm Workers lifted the boycotts of lettuce and grapes.
In 1985, after several changes in the California labor laws, the unionized farm workers began to march again for better wages and improved working conditions. Today, the Chávez children … all work for migrants’ rights.

Editor’s Note: César Chávez died in 1993.

Excerpted from César Chávez: Leader of Migrant Farm Workers, Globe Hispanic Biographies (New York: Globe Books, 1989), pp. 134-139. Copyright © 1989 by Globe Book Company. Reprinted by permission.