¡Sí Se Puede! Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight on César Chávez & the UFW
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FEATURE STORY

Every year from September 15 to October 15 the United States observes National Hispanic Heritage Month, a time marked to celebrate the many contributions made by Hispanic Americans who have shaped and strengthened this nation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish, refers to anyone who can "trace their origin or descent to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish-speaking countries of Central or South America, and other Spanish cultures." The 2010 Census also concluded that as of April 1, 2010 there were 50.5 million people of Hispanic origin in the United States, making this group "the nation's largest ethnic or race minority," constituting 16.3% of the total United States population. With such numbers it is not surprising that Latinos have contributed variedly to U.S. history, and National Hispanic Heritage Month allows for the celebration of this diversity.

National Hispanic Heritage Month was first observed as National Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 by proclamation of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which honored Hispanic Americans and celebrated the independence of several Latin American countries—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico. However, it was not until 1988 that Congress amended this national observance to designate September 15 to October 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month. Every year a theme is chosen for the celebrations; the theme for 2011 is "Many Backgrounds, Many Stories . . . One American Spirit." The 50.5 million Hispanics in the United States indeed represent many nationalities and backgrounds, each with unique stories that have contributed to modern American society.

One Hispanic American whose story significantly impacted U.S. history was César Chávez with his motto, "Sí, se puede" ("Yes, we can"). His efforts through the United Farm Workers (UFW) would transcend the local Mexican American migrant labor community in California to impact the greater American labor movement, achieving recognition of basic human rights for all the workers who harvest produce in the United States. Chávez's aim was to protect farm laborers, whose disenfranchisement he had experienced himself as a child with his family who were migrant workers. Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962, which later became the UFW. Through the support of many other civil rights leaders of the Hispanic community and beyond, the UFW successfully mobilized strikes and boycotts throughout the country to draw attention to the discrimination and poverty faced by farm workers. Chávez's efforts led to many successes: the first labor contracts between workers and growers in the history of U.S. agriculture; the first union contracts ensuring rest periods, clean drinking water, health benefits, and safety regulations for pesticide use; and the California Agriculture Labor Relations Act (1975)—today, still the only law protecting the right of farm workers to unionize.

National Hispanic Heritage Month presents an opportunity to remember the many Hispanic individuals like Chávez who have strengthened the U.S. social fabric by revisiting their experiences. The particular story of the farmworker movement has been preserved through letters, interviews, and UFW reports as well as through footage and newspaper articles of strikes, marches, and boycotts. Then there are the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files documenting the agency's surveillance of UFW activity during the 1960s and 1970s, made public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). All of these preserved memories help us "hear" the many voices that have contributed to Hispanic heritage in the United States, and National Hispanic Heritage Month will continue to honor their stories.

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