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César Estrada Chávez

César Estrada Chávez (March 31, 1927 – April 23, 1993) was a Mexican American (Chicano) farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.[1] Supporters say his work led to numerous improvements for union workers. He is considered a hero for farm labourers, and fought to help keep wages higher and improve work safety rules. He is hailed as one of the greatest American civil rights leaders after Martin Luther King, Jr.. His birthday has become a holiday in four U.S. states. Many parks, cultural centres, libraries, schools, and streets have been named in his honour in cities across the United States.

Early times

Chávez (named after his grandfather) was born near Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927 to an American family of Mexican and Basque descent. His early life was difficult: among other problems, the small adobe home where Chávez was born was swindled from his family by dishonest businessmen: Chávez's father Librado had agreed to clear 80 acres of land and add to the home in exchange for the deed to 40 acres of land, but the agreement was broken and the land was sold to a man named Justus Jackson. The elder Chávez went to a lawyer who advised him to borrow money to buy the land, but when he could not pay the interest on the loan, the lawyer bought the land and sold it back to the original owner.

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Chávez did not like school as a youth. He remembered being punished with a ruler to his knuckles for speaking Spanish. Some schools were segregated, and he frequently encountered racist remarks. He and his brother Richard attended thirty-seven schools over the course of their lives.

Chávez felt that education had nothing to do with his farm worker/migrant way of life. In 1942, he graduated from the eighth grade. He could not attend high school because his father Librado had been in an accident and did not want his mother Juana to work in the fields. Instead, César became a farm worker.

Chávez served in the Navy for a two-year enlistment during World War II aboard ship. His tour of duty included the campaigns to take Guam, Saipan, and Okinawa.

In 1948 Chávez married Helen Fabela. They honeymooned in California by visiting all the California Missions from Sonoma to San Diego. They settled in Delano and started their family. They had eight children, Fernando, Sylvia, Linda, Anna, Paul, Eloise, Elizabeth and Anthony.

Chávez went to San Jose where he met and was influenced by Father Donald McDonnell. They talked about farm workers and strikes. Chávez read about St. Francis, Gandhi and nonviolence. After Father McDonnell came another very influential person, Fred Ross, and Chávez became an organizer for Ross's organization, the Community Service Organization (CSO). His first task was voter registration.

Career as a labor leader

Chávez was taught and trained by Pete Fielding, and started working as a union organizer in 1952 for the Community Services Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group. Chávez urged Mexican-Americans to register and vote, and he traveled throughout California and made speeches in support of workers' rights. He became CSO's national director in the late 1950s.

Four years later, Chávez left the CSO. He co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Dolores Huerta.

In 1965, Filipino farm workers initiated the Delano grape strike on September 8 to protest in favor of higher wages. Six months later, Chávez and the NFWA led a strike of California grape-pickers on the historic farmworkers march from Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento for similar goals. In addition to the strike, the UFW encouraged all Americans to boycott table grapes as a show of support. The strike lasted five years and attracted national attention. When the U.S. Senate Subcommittee looked into the situation, Robert Kennedy gave Chávez his total support. This effort resulted in the first major labor victory for U.S. farm workers.

These activities led to similar movements in South Texas in 1966, where the UFW supported fruit workers in Starr County, Texas, and led a march to Austin, in support of UFW farm workers' rights. In the Midwest, César Chávez' movement inspired the founding of two Midwestern independent unions: Obreros Unidos in Wisconsin in 1966, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in Ohio in 1967. Former UFW organizers would also found the Texas Farm Workers Union in 1975.

In the early 1970s, the UFW organized strikes and boycotts to protest for, and later win, higher wages for those farm workers who were working for grape and lettuce growers. During the 1980s, Chávez led a boycott to protest the use of toxic pesticides on grapes. Bumper stickers read "NO GRAPES" and "NO UVAS" (the translation in Spanish) were widespread. He again fasted to draw public attention. UFW organizers believed that a reduction in produce sales by 15% was sufficient to wipe out the profit margin of the boycotted product. These strikes and boycotts generally ended with the signing of bargaining agreements.

Later in life, education became César's passion. The walls of his office in Keene, California (United Farm Worker headquarters) were lined with hundreds of books ranging in subject from philosophy, economics, cooperatives, and unions, to biographies on Gandhi and the Kennedys.

César Chávez and illegal immigration

The UFW during Chávez's tenure was committed to restricting immigration. César Chávez and Dolores Huerta fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemed from their belief that the program undermined U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the bracero program in 1964. The UFW was one of the first labor unions to oppose employer sanctions — a federal law that made it illegal to hire illegal aliens in 1973. Later during the 1980s, still under the presidency of Chávez, Dolores Huerta, the cofounder of the UWF, was key in getting the amnesty provisions in the 1986 federal immigration act. [2].

In a few occasions, concerns that undocumented migrant labor would undermine UFW strike campaigns lead to a number of controversial events which the UFW describes as anti-strikebreaking events, but which have also been interpreted as being anti-illegal immigration. In 1969, Chávez and members of the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valleys to the border of Mexico to protest growers' use of illegal aliens as strikebreakers. Joining him on the march were both Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale.[3] In its early years, Chávez and the UFW went so far as to report illegal aliens who served as strikebreaking replacement workers as well as those who refused to unionize to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.[4][5][6][7][8]

In 1973, the United Farm Workers set up a "wet line" to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the United States to prevent them from breaking a strike.[9] During one such event in which Chávez was not involved, some UFW members under the guidance of Chávez's cousin Manuel physically attacked the strikebreakers, after attempts to peacefully convince the illegal aliens not to cross failed.[10][11][12]

Animal rights advocate

Chávez was an ethical vegan and vocal advocate of animal rights.[13] He stated, "I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom. It was my dog Boycott who led me to question the right of humans to eat other sentient beings."[14] He also said, "Kindness and compassion towards all living beings is a mark of a civilized society. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting and rodeos are all cut from the same defective fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves."[15]

In accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from In Defense of Animals in 1992, Chávez stated, "We need, in a special way, to work twice as hard to help people understand that the animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves...We know we cannot be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them — exploiting animals in the name of science, exploiting animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting animals in the name of food."[16]

Chávez's granddaughter, Christine Chávez, continues not only César's legacy of civil rights and labor movement activism [17], but also speaks out in support of animal rights and has called for a ban on foie gras due to what she believes is extreme animal cruelty in its production.[18]


In 1973, college professors in Mount Angel, Oregon established the first four-year Mexican-American college in the United States. They chose César Chávez as their symbolic figurehead, naming the college Colegio Cesar Chavez. In the book Colegio Cesar Chavez, 1973-1983: A Chicano Struggle for Educational Self-Determination author Carlos Maldonado writes that Chávez visited the campus twice, joining in public demonstrations in support of the college. Though Colegio Cesar Chavez closed in 1983, it remains a recognized part of Oregon history. On its website the Oregon Historical Society writes, "Structured as a 'college-without-walls,' more than 100 students took classes in Chicano Studies, early childhood development, and adult education. Significant financial and administrative problems caused Colegio to close in 1983. Its history represents the success of a grassroots movement."[19]

In 1992 Chávez was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award. It was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in Terris is Latin for "Peace on Earth."

César Chávez died on April 23, 1993, of unspecified natural causes in a rental apartment in San Luis, Arizona. His birthday, March 31, is celebrated in California as a state holiday. All state government offices, community colleges, and libraries are closed, except for K-12 schools. Texas also recognizes the day, and it is an optional holiday in Arizona and Colorado.

The California cities of Modesto, Sacramento, San Diego, Berkeley, and San Jose, California have renamed parks after him, and in Amarillo, Texas a bowling alley has been renamed in his memory. In Los Angeles, César E. Chávez Avenue, originally named Brooklyn Avenue, extends from Sunset Boulevard and runs through East Los Angeles and Monterey Park. In San Francisco, César Chávez Street, originally named Army Street, is named in his memory. Fresno named an adult school, where a majority percent of students' parents or themselves are, or have been, field workers, after Chávez. In Austin, Texas, one of the main central thoroughfares was changed to César Chávez Boulevard. In Ogden, Utah, a four-block section of 30th Street was renamed Cesar Chavez Street. In Oakland, there is a library named after him and his birthday, March 31, is a district holiday in remembrance of him. In 2003, the United States Postal Service honored him with a postage stamp.

In 2005, a César Chávez commemorative meeting was held in San Antonio, honoring his work on behalf of immigrant farmworkers and other immigrants. In Santa Fe, New Mexico and Madison, Wisconsin there are elementary schools named after him in his honor. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the business loop of I-196 Highway is named "Cesar E Chavez Blvd." The (AFSC) American Friends Service Committee nominated him three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.[20]

On December 6, 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted César Chávez into the California Hall of Fame located at The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts.

César Chávez's eldest son, Fernándo Chávez, and grandson, Anthony Chávez, each tour the country, speaking about his legacy.

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