Cesar Estrada Chavez
Farm Workers’ Union Founder, Human Rights Activist : 1927-1993
Cesar Chavez was born on a farm homesteaded by his grandfather near Yuma, Arizona. The land was lost during the Great Depression, and at age ten Chavez became a migrant farm worker, moving throughout the Southwest with his family and thousands of other displaced and impoverished field and vineyard laborers. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade and worked full-time to help support his family. Following Navy duty at the end of World War II, Chavez married and returned to work in the fields around Delano, California; this move was the beginning of his life-long commitment to bettering the lives of economically exploited and often racially degraded farm workers.
In 1952 Chavez became an organizer for the barrio-based, self-help Community Service Organization (CSO) throughout California and Arizona. In 1962 he founded the National Farm Workers’ Association (NFWA) based on the credo: “Our struggle is not easy. Those who oppose our cause are rich and powerful and have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our own bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons.”
Ultimately, Chavez’s NFWA became the United Farm Workers (UFW). Committed to non-violence, Chavez’s UFW organized boycotts that were so successful over the years that by 1975 some 17 million Americans were honoring a boycott of California table grapes. He literally put his life on the line by holding fasts to gain national attention for his just causes; near the end of one of these fasts, then-Senator Robert Kennedy flew to his bedside and called him “one of the heroic figures of our time.”
Because of Cesar Chavez’s extraordinary efforts, farm workers gained higher pay, family health coverage, pension benefits and respect. In 1991 he received the Aguila Azteca (The Aztec Eagle), the highest decoration awarded by the Mexican government to foreigners who have made exceptional contributions to Mexico or to humankind in general; and, in 1994, he was posthumously presented with the highest civilian award of the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Cesar Chavez said, “The first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.”