CESAR ESTRADA CHAVEZ
March 31, 1927- April 23, 1993
Cesar Chavez was raised in a migrant farm worker
family in the desperately impoverished eras of the Dust Bowl and
the Depression. As a child, he attended more than 30 elementary
schools. After a decade of work as a community organizer, in 1962
he began to organize farm workers, later creating the UFW-the
United Farm Workers.
He fought for higher wages, protective contracts and to improve working conditions, succeeding in getting crippling tools such as the short-handled hoe, banned from the fields. He also battled for better living conditions for farm workers and their families, who were forced to live in squalor.
Chavez used the boycott as his primary tool, organizing nationwide protests against table grapes, wine and lettuce. "To win a boycott, we don't have to have 51 percent of public support," Chavez said. "All we need is 3 percent. If 3 percent of the American public joined us...That would cost the growers enough for them to listen to our demands." It was estimated that by the early 1970's more than 17 million American households were boycotting California table grapes in sympathy with Chavez's efforts.
Chavez was a disciple of nonviolence, a student of Gandhi's example of fasting, to call attention to injustices. His first, and perhaps most celebrated fast lasted 25 days in 1968. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy helped bring national attention by joining him at the end. Many believe these rigid liquids-only fasts made Chavez's health increasingly precarious and helped contribute to his early death this spring.
He also led arduous marches down hot and dusty farm roads, the most famous of which covered 250 miles in 1966. And he served 20 days in jail for picketing and organizing a boycott against a California farmer. Later the state Supreme Court ordered his release and legitimized his efforts.
The 1970's saw the greatest strides for the UFW, with more than 100,000 members, strong contracts with growers, and the establishment in California of an Agricultural Labor Relations Board that came as a result of Chavez's strong ties with Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown.
Chavez's last decade was spent once again boycotting grapes-but sounding a new alarm. He was warning about the terrible dangers of pesticides to farm workers, their families and to consumers.
His death in April was a shock and a profound loss to Mexican-Americans who saw him as their one true leader-a man whose ideas and motive transcended politics to reach into deeper issues of justices and equality, of uplifting people.
But Chavez knew his struggle was larger than one man's lifetime. "hay mas tiempo que vida," he was fond of saying-there is more time than life. He stressed the importance of training succeeding generations to take up the battle. One of his most stirring speeches was one he was too weak to give at the end of his 1968 fast, which had to be read by a compatriot. Chavez wrote: Our lives are really all that belong to us. Only by giving our lives do we find life. The truest act of courage is to struggle for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice."
From "ofrenda" (altar) tribute done for Cesar Chavez by Carlos Aguilar in 1993
Provided by Macario Ramirez, Casa Ramirex Folk Art Gallery, Houston Texas