From: California Curriculum Project, "Hispanic Biographies," 1994.
One night in the 1880's, a man named Cesario Chavez crossed the border from Chihuahua, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. He was fleeing the hardships of his homeland to make a better life in the United States for his family. Decades later, his grandson, Cesar Chavez, would make a stand in the fields of California to fight for a better life for all farm workers.
Cesario and his wife Dorotea worked very hard. Their children married and had children. The whole family lived in the Arizona desert near the town of Yuma and worked as farmers. One of Cesario's sons, Librado, married Juana Estrada, a woman who had also come from Chihuahua. Together they had six children. Cesar, was born in 1927, he was their second child and the oldest son.
Librado chavez was a hardworking man, and he prospered. In addition to farming, he operated a general store and was elected the local postmaster. "I had more happy moments as a child than unhappy moments," Chavez later recalled. Librado was good to his children, he even made their toys, but he was too busy to spend much time with them. "My mom kept the family together," Chavez had said.
When Cesar was ten years old, disaster struck. Librado made a business deal with a neighbor who did not keep his part of the bargain. In the end, the Chavez family lost their farm and all their belongings. It was 1937, the period following the Stock Market crash, the country had not yet recovered from the Great Depression. There were very few jobs, and many people were homeless. To make matters worse, the Southwest was experiencing severe droughts at this time.
By 1938, the Chavez family had joined some 300,000 migrant workes who followed the crops in California. Migrant workers would travel all over the state, picking whatever was in season for the farm owners. The migrant workers had no permanent homes. They lived in dingy overcrowded quarters, without bathrooms, electricity, or running water. Sometimes, they lived in the pickup trucks in which they traveled. Like the Chavez family, most of them were of Mexican descent.
Going to school wasn't easy for the children of the migrant workers, since they were always on the move. Cesar and his siblings attended more than thirty schools. Many times, their teachers were neither friendly nor helpful. The teachers of migrant children often felt that since these children would soon move on to other farms in other towns, teaching them wasn't worth the effort.
Some of these teachers were even prejudiced against Spanish-speaking students. "When we spoke Spanish," Chavez remembers, "the teacher swoooped down on us. I remember the ruler whistling through the air as its edge came down sharply across my knuckles. It really hurt. Even out in the playground, speaking Spanish brought punishment." He remembers hating school. "It wasn't the learning I hated, but the conflicts," he recalls. Despite all his difficulties in school, Cesar managed to graduate from the eighth grade. For migrant children in those days, graduation was an unusual occurrence.
Chavez had worked part-time in the fields while he was in school. After graduation he began to work full-time. He preferred working in the vineyards because grape pickers generally stayed in the same place for a longer time. He kept noticing that the labor contractors and the land owners exploited the workers. He tried reasoning with the farm owners about higher pay and better working conditions. But most of his fellow workers would not support him for fear of losing their jobs. As a solitary voice, Chavez had no power.
In 1944, he joined the United States Navy. At the end of his tour of duty, he returned to California to work in the fields. In 1948, he married a young women named Helen Fabela, who shared his social concerns. They began teaching the Mexican farm workers to read and write so they could take the test to become American citizens. They hoped that, as citizens, their fellow farm workers would be less afraid to join Cesar in his efforts to improve working conditions.
One day, a man from the local Community Service Organization wanted to recruit Chavez. He wanted him to join the organization to help inform the migrant workers with their rights. At first, Chavez was suspiciuous of the man because he was "Anglo," or non-Mexican white. But the man from the Community Service Organization convinced him of his good intentions, and Chavez became a part-time organizer for the group. During the day, he picked apricots on a farm. In the evening, he organized farm workers to register to vote. He was so successful that he registered more than 2,000 workers in just two months. But he was so busy helping the farm workers that he neglected his own work. As a result, he lost his job in the fields.
He then went to work full-time for the Community Service Organization. He had to organize meetings to tell the workers of their rights. He worried because he felt he wasn't a good speaker. So at first, he did more listening than speaking. In time, he grew more confident and found that people listened to him and liked his message. But, it was still very difficult to persuade the workers to fight for their rights. They were always afraid of losing their jobs.
By 1962, he could no longer stand to see the workers being taken advantage of, watching as they worked long hours for low pay. At the age of thirty-five, he left his own well paid job to devote all his time to organizing the farm workers into a union. His wife had to become a fruit picker in the fields to feed their children. Chavez traveled from camp to camp organizing the workers. In each camp, he recruited a few followers. By this time he had also gotten many other members of his family involved in the movement. At the end of six months, 300 members of the National Farm Workers Union, as the group was first called, met in Fresno, California. At that first meeting, they approved their flag, a red background with a black eagle in a white circle in the center. "La Causa" (The Cause) was born!
With a strong leader to represent them, the workers began to demand their rights for fair pay and better working conditions. Without these rights, no one would work inthe fields. A major confrontation occurred in 1965. The grape growers didn't listen to the union's demands, and the farmhands wanted a strike. At first, Chavez wanted to avoid a strike, but he was finally convinved that there was no other way. The workers left the fields, and the unharvested grapes began to rot on the vines. The growers hired illegal workers and brought in strikebreakers and thugs to beat up the strikers.
The dispute was bitter. Union members-Chavez included- were jailed repeatedly. But public officials, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens from all across the United States flocked to California to march in support of the farm workers. Then, in 1970, some grape growers signed agreements with the union. The union lifted the grape boycott, and its members began to pick grapes again. That same year, chavez thought that even people who could not travel to California could show their support for his cause. Thus he appealed for a nationwide boycott of lettuce. People from all parts of the United States who sympathized with the cause of the farm workers refused to buy lettuce. Some even picketed in front of supermarkets.
By 1973, the union had changed its name to the United Farm Workers of America. Relations with the grape growers had once again deteriorated, so a grape boycott was added to the boycott of lettuce. On several occasions, Chavez fasted to protest the violence that arose. Finally, by 1978, some of the workers' conditions were met, and the United Farm Workers lifted the boycotts on lettuce and grapes.
In 1985, after several changes in the California labor laws, the unionized farm workers began to march again for better wages and improved working conditions. Today, the Chavez children- Paul, Ana, Anthony, Fernando, Eloise, Sylvia, and Linda all work for migrants' rights. Chavez himself continues to lead marches, often accompanied by one or more of his grandchildren. In the sixth decade of his life, he is as concerned as ever about dignity, justice, and fairness. He is still ready to sacrifice for what he believes is right. "fighting for social justice, it seems to me, is one of the profoundest ways in which man can say yes to man's dignity, and that really means sacrifice," Cesar has said. "There is no way on this earth in which you can say yes to man's dignity and know that you're going to be spared some sacrifice."