Cesar Chavez: The man, the legacy

 

As a teacher of U.S. History and Chicano Studies during the latter half of my teaching career, I made it clear to my students that the two classes parallel each other, both with historic figures and dynamic events that shaped our nation. One of those figures was Cesar Estrada Chavez. 

While the course of study in U.S. History, especially the textbook, was limited on the farm worker movement that began in the 1960s, I was able to spend more time on Cesar Chavez in my Chicano Studies class, focusing on his challenges with agribusiness and successes for farm worker rights and injustices. Cesar would rally those behind him to support strikes (huelga) by carrying red flags with black eagles on them or boycott the purchase of produce at the market that derived from the growers’ fields.  

It was the beginning of La Causa, a powerful movement for economic and social justice. Si se puede (Yes we can) inspired many of us to never give up and to move beyond the obstacles that hindered us from our goals. 

I was fortunate enough to have seen Cesar Chavez and heard him speak in my early days on a college campus. I was moved by his gentle demeanor that was accompanied by a powerful message. 

Others in a small section of the student union heckled him. He paused, looked in their direction, and with calm words, asked for respect, then continued uninterrupted. 

Cesar Chavez was a humble man who gave himself unselfishly to the cause of farm workers and all workers. He championed the cause of equality for all. 

His courage in the face of some our nation’s most powerful industries inspired generations of all races and nationalities to fight the good fight. 

Celebrating the legacy of Cesar Chavez each March 31 is recognizing that with organization, unity, and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good, justice will prevail. 

I encourage everyone to visit the National  Chavez Center in Keene, just a few miles west of Tehachapi (see pages 6-7). The beautiful, bucolic grounds have a museum and memorial garden where Cesar Chavez rests.

Here is a chronology of Cesar Chavez’s life and accomplishments. Si se puede!

1927— Cesar Estrada Chavez was born in Yuma, Ariz., on March 31, to a poor Mexican American family.

1938— At the age of 10, Cesar Chavez began working in the fields and became part of the migrant workers’ plight, eventually moving to California with his family.

1946— Chavez enlists in the Navy, where he serves for two years in the Pacific.

1948— He marries Helen Favela. Over the years, they have eight children.

1952— Chavez joins the Community Service Organization (CSO) in San Jose and becomes an organizer in the Mexican American community, spearheading voter registration drives and fighting racial and economic discrimination.

1958— He moves to the CSO headquarters in Los Angeles.

1962— Chavez creates the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in Delano with labor leader Dolores Huerta. The organization is dedicated to the rights of migrant workers, including  minimum wage, insurance, and collective bargaining.

1965— The NFWA, primarily made up of Mexican Americans, joins the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), mostly Filipino Americans. Chavez advocates strikes, picketing, boycotts, marches, and other nonviolent means to achieve the union’s goals. His movement is modeled on Gandhian and Martin Luther King philosophies of civil disobedience.

1966— The strikers march 250 miles from Delano to California’s capital in Sacramento to present their list of demands. Several grape companies agree to sign a contract with the union. These were the first contracts for American farm workers. 

That same year, the NFWA and AWOC merge, forming the United Farm Workers (UFW), which becomes an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

1968— Chavez leads a national boycott of California table grape growers, which becomes known as “La Causa.” Robert Kennedy strongly supports it.

Chavez goes on a 25-day hunger strike, which reaffirms his belief in non-violence.

1970— The UFW signs a contract with most California table grape growers, ending the strike. Chavez organizes a nationwide lettuce boycott.

1972— Chavez undertakes a 24-day hunger fast.

1973— The UFW organizes a lettuce growers’ strike.

1975— The California Agricultural Labor Relations Act becomes law, allowing farm workers the right to boycott and to collective bargaining.

1988— Chavez undertakes a 36-day “Fast for Life” to call attention to the health hazards farm workers and their children face due to exposure to pesticides.

1993— Chavez dies on April 23 at the age of 66.

1994— President Bill Clinton awards Chavez a posthumous Medal of Freedom.

2000— California establishes a state holiday on Chavez’s birthday to honor him. (As of 2015, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island have followed California in commemorating Cesar Chavez.)

2012— In October, President Barack Obama traveled to the National Chavez Center in Keene to announce the creation of Cesar E. Chavez National Monument and the site’s designation as a National Historic Landmark.

2016— Some of the monument’s services and programs are still in development, but a visitor center and memorial garden where Chavez is buried are open to the public daily, 10 a.m to 4 p.m.

Frank L. Avalos of Three Rivers is a retired educator of U.S. History and Chicano Studies.

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