Cesar Chavez lived from 1927–1993. He rose to fame in the 1960s, when he protested poor working conditions for farm workers. His success in achieving workers' civil rights brought him acclaim and awards, although he continued to live a modest life until his death.
Chavez was born in Arizona, where he was raised in a small adobe home. During his youth, his father was swindled out of land for which he worked. An unprincipled attorney advised his father to take out a loan and buy the land instead. When his father could not meet the needed payments, the attorney took advantage of the situation by buying the land from him. Chavez later referred to this incident as arousing his desire for justice.
The Chavez family moved to California in 1938. They lived in a barrio of San Jose, where his parents worked in the fields. Chavez was determined to attend college and rise out of poverty, but the educational system posed barriers such as racism and a foreign language (his home was Spanish-speaking). By 15, he managed to complete the eighth grade, but his family situation did not allow him to attend high school. His father had been injured in an accident, so Cesar had to labor as a migrant farm worker to support the family.
Migrant workers in the San Joaquin Valley, most of whom were of Mexican descent, lived and worked in squalid conditions. They dwelled in tents or single-room shacks, without access to running water or electricity. More than 300,000 migrant workers moved with seasons, working different fields according to the harvest schedule.
Although Chavez's formal education was cut short, he read extensively to increase his knowledge. Increasingly aware of the inequity of the migrant workers' circumstances, he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the farmers for improved pay and working conditions.
In 1946, Chavez joined the U.S. Navy, where he served for two years. He married Helen Fabela in 1948. She shared his passion for social justice. They raised eight children together in Delano, California.
Early influences on Chavez's notions of social justice were the works of Mahatma Gandhi and St. Francis of Assisi. He began to implement his ideas when the local Community Services Organization hired him to inform migrant workers of their rights. Chavez remained with the CSO for 10 years, building it into the most influential civil rights group for Latinos of its era.
Chavez expanded his campaigning activities in 1962, when he formed the United Farmer Workers (UFW) organization. He personally drove to farm-worker towns and camps to recruit support for the cause. He led the workers in numerous boycotts and nonviolent strikes. His cause became known internationally. In addition to strikes, Chavez engaged in fasts as political protests. He also called for a boycott of table grapes in 1973. Americans supported him, with a reported 17 million refusing to buy grapes. Political figures such as Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. backed him as well.
Chavez's actions resulted in the passing of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The act, which was supported by California Gov. Jerry Brown, protected the rights of farm workers to boycott and unionize.
Chavez was unique in many ways. Most labor leaders considered organizing the union workers an impossible task. His determination and his one-on-one approach convinced the workers to join the union. He recognized that an organizer must build trust through personal relationships. Although farm workers still have never been fully unionized, he produced notable successes, such as the nation's first collective bargaining legislation for farm workers.
Chavez's motives were both a desire to change the migrant experience and his personal theology. He was a devout Roman Catholic who believed that the church is responsible to care for the poor. He called on church leaders to side with the workers as a demonstration of its sacred duty to improve the lives of the poor. Eventually, they shifted their support to his cause, lending him more credibility with the mostly Catholic farm workers. The UFW was built around traditional Catholic practices. Many union advisors were Catholic priests, and the Virgin of Guadalupe became a powerful symbol within the organization. The union's use of fasts, pilgrimages and public prayers were all expressions of its Catholic base. Chavez's lifelong commitment to nonviolent practices was rooted in the teachings of St. Paul and Gandhi.
Chavez's campaign for justice is considered an impetus for the civil rights movement in the United States. It was also a recipient of the movement's strengths. He was able to garner the sponsorship of several organizations besides the church. The Migrant Ministry, UAW, student radicals, AFL-CIO and civil rights activists all provided funds and political contacts to keep his vision alive. The Democratic reign of the 1960s indirectly promoted the United Farmer Workers union by increasing the political influence of its supporters.