César Chávez Biography
César Chávez was born in Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927. His family moved to California during the Great Depression in the late 1930s after losing their homestead to foreclosure.
Chávez dedicated his life’s work to what he called la causa (the cause): the struggle of farm workers in the United States to improve their working and living conditions through organizing and negotiating contracts with their employers. Chávez was committed to the tactics of nonviolent resistance practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He founded the National Farm Workers Association (later known as TheUnited Farm Workers of America) and won important victories to raise pay and improve working conditions for farm workers in the late 1960s and 1970s. In 1952, he was working at a lumberyard in San Jose when he became a grassroots organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group.
Over the next decade, he worked to register new voters and fight racial and economic discrimination and rose to become the CSO’s national director. Chávez resigned from the CSO in 1962, after other members refused to support his efforts to form a labor union for farm workers. That same year, he used his life savings to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in Delano, California. Chávez knew firsthand the struggles of the nation’s poorest and most powerless workers, who labored to put food on the nation’s tables while often going hungry themselves. Not covered by minimum wage laws, many made as little as 40 cents an hour, and did not qualify for unemployment insurance.
Previous attempts to unionize farm workers had failed, as California’s powerful agricultural industry fought back with all the weight of their money and political power. Working doggedly to build the NFWA alongside fellow organizer Dolores Huerta, Chávez traveled around the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys to recruit union members. Meanwhile, Helen Chávez worked in the fields to support the family, as they struggled to stay afloat. In September 1965, the NFWA launched a strike against California’s grape growers alongside the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a Filipino-American labor group.
The strike lasted five years and expanded into a nationwide boycott of California grapes. The boycott drew widespread support, thanks to the highly visible campaign headed by Chávez, who led a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966 and undertook a well-publicized 25-day hunger strike in 1968.
"I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice,” Chávez declared, in a speech read on his behalf when his first hunger strike ended. “To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us be men."
The grape strike and boycott ended in 1970, with the farm workers reaching a collective bargaining agreement with major grape growers that increased the workers’ pay and gave them the right to unionize. The NWFA and AWOC had merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which in 1971 became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Throughout the 1970s, Chávez continued leading the union’s efforts to win labor contracts for farm workers across the agricultural industry, employing the same nonviolent techniques of strikes and boycotts.
In 1972, he went on a second hunger strike to protest an Arizona law banning farm workers from organizing and protesting. Thanks to the UFW’s efforts, California passed the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, giving all farm workers the right to unionize and negotiate for better wages and working conditions. In the mid-1980s, Chávez focused the UFW’s efforts on a campaign to highlight the dangers of pesticides for farm workers and their children. In 1988, at the age of 61, he underwent his third hunger strike, which lasted for 36 days.
Chávez died in his sleep on April 23, 1993, at the age of 66. The following year, President Bill Clinton awarded him a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. In a sign of the labor leader’s enduring influence, Barack Obama borrowed a Chávez slogan—Si, se puede, or “Yes, we can”—during his successful run to become the first Black U.S. president in 2008.
César Chávez Day
César Chávez Day became a United States federal commemorative holiday in 2014, as declared by President Barack Obama. However, the state of California established the day as César Chávez Day in 2000. The holiday celebrates the birth and legacy of the civil rights and labor movement activist on March 31st of every year. Currently, only the following states observe César Chávez Day; Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.
"Chávez left a legacy as an educator, environmentalist, and a civil rights leader. And his cause lives on. As farmworkers and laborers across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages, we find strength in what César Chávez accomplished so many years ago. And we should honor him for what he's taught us about making America a stronger, more just, and more prosperous nation. That's why I support the call to make César Chávez's birthday a national holiday. It's time to recognize the contributions of this American icon to the ongoing efforts to perfect our union."
-Senator Barack Obama, March 31, 2008.
César Chávez Fast Facts
California State University San Marcos Cesar Chavez Day of Service
In honor of César Chávez day, join the CSUSM community over zoom and have a virtual conversation to celebrate and honor the legacy of César Chávez.
Wednesday, March 31, 2021
A Virtual Conversation: Honoring the Legacy of César Chávez
Time: 3:00-4:30 PM (PST)
Description: Join the CSUSM community for a reflective event featuring two keynote speakers on the legacy of César Chávez and the issues farmworkers continue to face in the global pandemic.
Dr. Laura Rendon, Professor Emerita at the University of Texas San Antonio
Dr. José Manuel Villareal, Principal – Oceanside High School