March 31 is César Chávez Day, which was proclaimed in 2014 by former President Barack Obama. That proclamation lauded him as “one of America’s greatest champions for social justice” and someone who devoted his life to correcting injustices, reminding others that “every job has dignity, every life has value, and everyone—no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you come from—should have the chance to get ahead.”
Chávez visited Denver on a number of occasions, and worked alongside well-known Colorado Latino leaders like Polly Baca and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez. Today is a federal holiday in the United States, and it is also observed in several states—including here in Colorado. (Others that have celebrations include Arizona, California, Minnesota, Texas, Utah and Washington.)
Who was César Chávez?
Born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, Chávez began his life as a manual laborer. He joined the US Navy before moving to California and getting involved in the Community Service Organization, a civil rights group that helped laborers register to vote. He became its national director in 1959.
In 1962, he co-founded with Dolores Huerta the National Farm Workers Association (now the United Farm Workers of America). It’s the largest farm workers’ union that continues its activism in major agricultural sectors, chiefly in California.
Chávez led strikes to fight for better working conditions, housing and educational access for farm workers and their families—many who were predominantly Mexican American and Filipino American. Those efforts put such issues on the radar of labor groups and activists.
California Grape Boycott
In 1965, Chávez got involved in what is now considered one of the most important strikes in American history: the grape strike in Delano, California. Filipino and Mexican immigrants had worked for many years to harvest the crops of the West Coast, but many were aging and wanting health care and retirement funds.
One of their labor organizers declared a strike and asked Chávez, Huerta and the National Farm Workers Association for support. That led to a five-year standoff between poor farm workers and the largest grape growers in the area.
A national boycott of grapes ensued and gained support from leaders like Senator Robert Kennedy. Protests continued as workers demanded not only higher wages and benefits for farm workers, but things like bans of pesticide use while workers were in the fields and clean drinking water.
Chávez’s and others’ efforts led to the creation of labor contracts in 1970 between grape growers and the United Farm Workers of America for pay increases and health and other benefits for laborers.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Although Chávez started working in the fields at age 10 and had to drop out of school after eighth grade, he loved to read and discovered Gandhi’s works as a teenager. He admired Ghandi’s commitment to nonviolence to inspire change and embraced the same approach in his own efforts.
In 1968, Chávez fasted for 25 days in support of the United Farm Workers. He received a telegram of encouragement from Martin Luther King, Jr,. and a visit from Senator Kennedy at the end of the fast.
The “Salad Bowl” Strikes
After grape growers accepted union contracts and improved the industry for workers, Chávez spent the rest of his life continuing to fight to improve the lives of farm workers through boycotts, strikes and other nonviolent tactics.
When lettuce growers in California unfairly interfered in union affairs—by recognizing the Teamsters Union as a bargaining agent for lettuce workers when the workers had never even been consulted—Chávez and the United Farm Workers once again engaged in a nonviolent campaign to drive change. A national lettuce boycott and labor strike ended with an agreement between the Teamsters and the United Farm Workers.
By the 1970s, Chávez was known as a passionate leader and champion for civil and labor rights. Here in Colorado, the lettuce strike’s impacts were felt by pickers and packers in the San Luis Valley. Thereafter, the Mel Finerman Company agreed to pay higher wages and provide other services to its workers.
Chávez’s Stance on Immigration
Throughout the 1970s, Cesar Chávez expressed frustration about the effect of illegal immigrants working undocumented for employers that would rely on them to break strikes. He wrote in a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Examiner in 1974, “if there were no illegals being used to break our strikes, we could win those strikes overnight and then be in a position to improve the living and working conditions of all farm workers.”
Over time, his ideology shifted on this complex issue, however, and he began to support the movement for Mexican American rights. Though his stances were polarizing at times, by the 1980s, he backed the 1986 bill signed by President Ronald Reagan to legalize the status of nearly three million people.
Defending Farm Workers Until His Death
Even until the very end of his life, Chávez wanted to support farm workers’ rights.
In 1993, he traveled to Yuma, Arizona, supporting United Farm Workers as its attorneys defended the union against a lawsuit brought by Bruce Church Inc.—a lettuce and vegetable producer seeking damages resulting from a boycott of its lettuce during the 1980s. The legal action was brought in Arizona, where there had been no boycott activity.
After the trial recessed on Thursday, April 22, 1993, Chávez drove around the area where he grew up as a child and made his way to San Luis, a small village 20 miles from Yuma. He and other United Farm Workers leaders were staying at the small home of his longtime friend and farm worker.
That night, he was exhausted from the trial but in good spirits. On April 23, his friends discovered him in bed, having passed away peacefully in his sleep.
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Cesar’s widow, Helen Chávez, accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her late husband from former President Bill Clinton in 1994. The president said that “the farm workers who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency pinned their hopes on this remarkable man who, with faith and discipline, soft spoken humility and amazing inner strength, led a very courageous life.”
Without a doubt, César Chávez made this country better for American farm workers who were seeking basic human rights and fair wages. Today, we honor his legacy and impact.