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Cesar Chavez, Latino Champion of Civil Rights

Fought for Fairness and Human Dignity of Farm Workers


Cesar Chavez, Latino Champion of Civil Rights

Cesar Chavez

Chavez, one of America's great civil rights leaders, admired by world leaders, never owned a home. Never earned more than $6,000 in a year. He owned few possessions and lived simply.

President Clinton, in posthumously awarding Cesar the Medal of Freedom in 1994, declared, "Cesar Chavez left our world better than he found it, and his legacy inspires us still. He was for his own people a Moses figure. The farm workers who labored in the fields pinned their hopes on this remarkable man."

Who was Cesar Chavez? He was born in Yuma, Arizona in 1927, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, the son of a prosperous farmer and his deeply religious wife, Chavez' parents were swindled out of their home when he was 10 years old. It was a lesson that left him thirsty for justice.

The family moved to join 300,000 California migrant workers picking crops in the fertile San Joaquin Valley. Migrant workers lived in dirty one-room shacks or tents. They had no bathrooms, electricity or running water. Most migrant workers were of Mexican descent. Workers moved from camp to camp, harvest to harvest.

Cesar completed 8th grade before dropping out of school to work in the fields to support his family. Education left him with a love of knowledge and books. The teenage Cesar Chavez noticed that the farmers exploited the workers. He tried reasoning with farm owners for better pay and working conditions, to no avail.

He enlisted in the Marines in 1944, where he experienced racial discrimination, as he had in classroom and fields. After 2 years, Cesar returned to California where he married a young woman who would share for a lifetime his social justice concerns.

Influenced by a local priest, Cesar began reading the works of St. Francis of Assisi, who devoted his life to helping the poor, and of Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence.

Cesar was recruited by the local Community Services Organization to inform migrant workers of their rights. In just two months, he registered more than 2,000 workers to vote. He promptly quit his day job of picking apricots, and worked 10 years for the CSO, making it the most effective Latino civil rights group of its day.

In 1962, Cesar Chavez resigned from the CSO and launched what became the United Farmer Workers (UFW). For the next 4 years, Chavez, with his 8 kids often in tow, drove to farm worker camps and towns, signing up members. His fiery belief in a better life for farm workers fueled him to pursue power for the weak and vulnerable farm workers.

In 1965, Cesar and 1,200 members joined a strike against Delano grape growers. In 1966, he led a 340-mile trek to draw attention to the plight of migrant farm workers. The next few years saw boycotts and strikes, all non-violent. La Causa became an international cause.

And then there were the fasts. Cesar Chavez fasted as political protest. In early 1968, he fasted for 25 days. Cesar was joined by Senator Robert F. Kennedy and 8,000 farm workers at a Catholic mass when he broke his fast.

Kennedy called him "one of the heroic figures of our time."Martin Luther King, Jr. telegraphed to him, "Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity." There were more strikes, boycotts, marches and fasts. There was jail time, too.

In 1973, 10,000 farm workers walked off the grape fields to strike over a contract dispute. Strikers were arrested, beaten, and even killed. Cesar Chavez called off the strike and instead, called for a boycott of table grapes. 17 million Americans refused to buy grapes.

The result was the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, supported by California Governor Jerry Brown. It protected the right of farm workers to unionize and boycott, and guaranteed secret ballots in farm workers' union elections.

In the 1980s, Chavez focused on the dangers of pesticides, which had always caused illness among farm workers. In 1988, he fasted for 36 days to call attention to "the plague of pesticides on our land and our food." He was joined in the fast by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and many others.

Cesar Chavez died in his sleep in 1993, after days of testimony in a contentious lawsuit filed in Arizona by lettuce farmers. Cesar spent his last afternoon driving through Latino neighborhoods of his youth before retiring for the night at a modest concrete-block home owned by an old UFW friend.

His funeral was conducted by Cardinal Roger Mahoney, and attended by 50,000 mourners. Mahoney eulogized Cesar as â "special prophet for the world's farm workers." The Pope sent his condolences.

Cesar Chavez did much to secure for farm workers just wages, increased health care and safer working conditions. As Cesar desired, he did much to assuage the abuse of human dignity and the exploitation of vulnerable people.

Cesar Chavez was a great civil rights champion of Latinos and all people.

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