César Estrada Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, on a small farm homesteaded in 1909 by his Mexican grandfather Cesario near Yuma, Arizona. He was the second child of Juana Estrada and Librado Chávez, who eked out a precarious living on the farm. When the Great Depression of the 1930s occurred, the Chávezes, like thousands of other Americans, lost their land because they could not pay their taxes. Piling their meager possessions in their old Studebaker, they joined the long procession heading for California.
Chávez grew up following the harvests in California and Arizona. At best, his home was a tarpaper-covered shack in a farm labor camp and at worst, a tent, the Studebaker, or shelter under some overpass. Chávez and his brothers endured, but they learned little in school. By his own count, Chávez attended at least 30 schools before he dropped out in the seventh grade. He could scarcely read and write.
In the summer of 1952, there occurred an event that changed Chávez's life. Through a local priest, Rev. Donald McDonnell, he became acquainted with Fred Ross Sr., an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO). The CSO taught people how to solve their own problems. Although skeptical at first, Chávez quickly joined the CSO as an unpaid volunteer, working in voter registration. By observing Ross carefully, he learned techniques of recruiting and organizing, holding meetings, and creating power among the powerless. At the same time, with help from his wife he began to read and study in order to improve his poor education and thereby become a more effective organizer.
By 1958, Chávez was a director in the CSO. During the next few years he became increasingly convinced that the organization had strayed from its earlier goal of mobilizing the very poor. Because workers in agriculture were among the poorest, he believed that the CSO should concentrate its efforts among them. The CSO board of directors disagreed. When his proposal to organize a farm workers' union was again voted down in 1962, Chávez resigned from the organization and moved to Delano in California's Central Valley. Here he began to build his National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Helped by Fred Ross, Dolores Huerta, and others, Chávez spent 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, talking to workers about the need for organization. In three years he enrolled some 1,700 families in the union and had achieved some minor successes.
On September 16, 1965, the NFWA voted to join some 800 Filipino grape workers in their strike for higher wages and better working and living conditions. Realizing that his fledgling union with its $100 treasury was far from ready and would need all the help it could get, Chávez sought and obtained support from the student movement, from civil rights and church groups, as well as from established unions and national leaders. He also converted La Huelga ("The Strike") from a mere labor dispute to a civil rights crusade—La Causa ("The Cause"). He strongly stressed its moral basis and dramatized it by making the Virgin of Guadalupe its unofficial symbol along with the black eagle; by organizing a long march from Delano to the state capital, Sacramento; by undertaking a 25-day fast to reaffirm his commitment to nonviolence; and by declaring a nationwide grape boycott that soon spread overseas.
At the end of the march to Sacramento in April 1966, Chávez's United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, as the union was now known, won contracts from 11 major wine grape companies, but growers of table grapes held out. Even with a conscience-stirring national and international boycott of California table grapes, it took Chávez until 1970 to bring them to the bargaining table. In July, with the help of the Catholic Bishops Committee on Farm Labor, three-year contracts were drawn up with 26 growers; the five-year strike had ended in success. Unfortunately, the United Farm Workers (UFW) sorely lacked a professional staff needed to successfully implement the contracts.
When the three-year UFW contracts expired, 59 California grape growers signed with the Teamsters Union. Meanwhile Chávez attempted to organize workers in the Salinas Valley lettuce fields but encountered the Teamsters union there and failed after eight years of boycott. In announcing the boycott's end, Chávez declared it had served its purpose of calling attention to the workers' plight.
In spite of Chávez's continued vigorous leadership and the union's wide range of services to its members, UFW membership began to decline in the second half of the 1970s. By the end of the decade Chávez's union had shrunk to about 20% of the 90,000 to 100,000 California farm workers earlier enrolled. The promise of the 1975 state Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which provided statutory support for secret ballot union elections, was quickly sabotaged by the legislature's control of its funding. Two years later Chávez's leadership suffered another blow when a serious internal UFW split resulted in the loss of some of the union's most experienced organizers and staff. On top of this, by the 1980s unionism generally was running into hard times all over the country.
To counter rising anti-union sentiment and to recapture the dream of the 1960s, in the early 1980s Chávez turned to expanded objectives and new tactics such as mass mailings with computerized lists. Among his goals was the reduction of excessive use of pesticides; in 1984 he initiated a new grape boycott because of pesticide abuse. In July 1988, Chávez went on his third fast to publicize the boycott and to bring the pesticide issue dramatically to the attention of the American people. His 36-day fast left him greatly weakened physically.
The grip that Chávez held over the imagination of so many idealists of the 1960s and 1970s had also weakened. The Delano grape strike was a remarkable personal victory, but by the 1990s it seemed to many to be largely symbolic in its benefits. There was some criticism, even by friends and family, of his absolute and personal domination of the UFW. By the beginning of the 1990s the union had perhaps 20,000 members and about 100 contracts; statewide its influence appeared marginal. The grape boycott was still in place, but few consumers seemed aware of it. However, Chávez still had a devoted following.
Chávez died unexpectedly in his sleep on April 23, 1993, while in Arizona testifying in a UFW court case. He is the recipient of many awards and honors in recognition of his work on behalf of farm workers. In 1976, there was some talk of Chávez being a possible candidate for a Nobel Prize. In November 1990, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari conferred on him the highest award Mexico can give to a foreigner, the Aguila Azteca. One year later, U.S. president Bill Clinton honored Chávez with the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the end of March 1995, after a two-decade campaign by Mexican Americans and others, New Haven Middle School in Union City, California, was formally renamed César Chávez Middle School; several other public schools, parks, streets, and buildings across the United States are named after him. Furthermore, Chávez's birthday, March 31, is commemorated as a state holiday in California.
Goodwin, David. César Chávez: Hope for the People. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991; Griswold del Castillo, Richard and Richard Garcia. César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995; Levy, Jacques E. César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974; London, Joan, and Henry Anderson. So Shall Ye Reap: The Story of César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1971; Pitrone, Jean M. Chávez: Man of the Migrants. New York: Pyramid Communications, 1972.