The Legacy Of Cesar Chavez, American Labor Activist

By Grace Taylor

Cesar Chavez holds a shovel across his shoulders while working in the community garden at La Paz, California, 1975. (Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)

After his family lost their farm in Arizona during the Great Depression, a young Cesar Chavez learned firsthand the struggles that migrant farm workers faced when it came to fair pay, protection from abuse, and workers' rights. After dropping out of school to work alongside his family in the Californian fields, he enlisted in the Navy to serve the United States during World War II and spent his early adulthood reading and learning history, which later served him well when he campaigned for basic rights for his fellow laborers.

After losing his job at the General Box Company in 1953, Chavez doubled down on community organization. He joined a Latino civil rights group called the Community Service Organization, where he worked for 10 years, eventually becoming its national director. That still wasn't far enough for Chavez, though; he believed the organization's focus on immediate issues rather than their underlying social causes was nearsighted. Lasting, large-scale change, he believed, required unionization.

Studio photograph of Mahatma Gandhi, London, 1931. (Elliott & Fry/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1962, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association. He spent two years focusing on community outreach and organization before his first big strike with the California grape growers in 1965, which led to a boycott of all California grapes for an impressive five years. He gained major support after leading a 340-mile march from Delano, California to the capital city of Sacramento and later garnered more respect as he withstood a 25-day hunger strike in 1968. Chavez took inspiration from nonviolent activists like India's Mahatma Ghandi and committed the movement to civil disobedience without the use of force.

The boycott was successful, and the workers won the right to unionize in 1970. The following year, the N.F.W.A. teamed up with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to form the United Farm Workers of America, an organization which still exists today and boasts thousands of members across the country. Finally, in 1975, California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gave all agricultural workers in the state the right to unionize.

Spanish rally card for the Barack Obama presidential campaign in Austin, Texas, reading "Sí se puede, Tejas!" ((Brian)/Wikimedia Commons)

With that massive win in his pocket, Chavez focused his later efforts on pesticide regulation, as many farmers and their children became sick from the chemicals used in the fields. In 1988, at the age of 61, he undertook his third hunger strike, which lasted 36 days. Five years later, he died in his sleep from natural causes, but he lives on as something of a folk hero among Chicanos and those who fight for workers' rights. The year following his death, he received the Presidential Medal of Honor, and his slogan of "Si, se puede!" ("Yes, we can!") was used prominently by President Barack Obama for his 2008 election campaign. His name adorns parks, streets, and schools across America, and he will surely inspire workers' rights advocates for decades to come.

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Grace Taylor