1927, March 31 – Césario Estrada Chávez was born in Yuma, Arizona, near the small farm his grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s.
1937 – César’s family lost their farm in the Great Depression. The Chávez family migrated across the Southwest laboring in the fields and vineyards, finally settling in California.
1942 – César quit school after the eighth grade to work in the fields full-time to help support his family.
1944 – He joined the U.S. Navy for two years and served in the Western Pacific. Just before shipping out to the Pacific, César was arrested in a segregated Delano, California, movie theater for sitting in the “whites only” section.
1948 – César married Helen Fabela whom he had met working in the vineyards of San Jose, California. They settled in the East San Jose barrio of Sal Si Puedes (Get Out If You Can) and would eventually have eight children and thirty-one grandchildren.
1948-1949 – He began studying the social teachings of the Catholic Church.
1952 – Community organizer Fred Ross met César, then a young farm worker laboring in apricot orchards outside San Jose, and recruited him to work for the Community Service Organization (CSO), a prominent Latino civil rights group.
1952-1962 – César and Fred Ross organized 22 CSO chapters throughout California. Under César's leadership, the CSO became the most effective Latino civil rights group of its day. It helped Latinos become citizens, registered them to vote, battled police brutality and pressed for paved streets and other barrio improvements.
1962, March 31 – On his birthday, César resigned from the CSO and moved his wife and eight small children to Delano where he founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and dedicated himself to organizing farm workers full-time.
1962, September 30 – The first NFWA convention was held in Fresno, California.
1962-1965 – César often took his youngest children to dozens of farm worker towns as he painstakingly built up NFWA membership.
1965, September 16 – On Mexican Independence Day, César's NFWA, with 1,200 member families, voted to join a strike against Delano-area grape growers that was initiated by the mostly Filipino-American members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (AWOC). This began the five-year Delano Grape Strike.
1966, March-April – César and a small group of strikers embarked upon a 350-mile Peregrinacion (pilgrimage) from Delano to the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento to draw national attention to the suffering of farm workers. During the march and after a four-month boycott, growers negotiated an agreement with NFWA, which was the first genuine union contract between a grower and farm workers in U.S. history.
1966, Spring-Summer – The NFWA and the Filipino-American AWOC merge to form the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW).
1967 – The UFW began a boycott of all California table grapes.
1967-1970 – Hundreds of grape strikers fanned out across North America to organize an international grape boycott. Millions of Americans rallied to support the farm workers' cause known as “La Causa.”
1968, February-March – César fasted for 25 days to rededicate his movement to nonviolence. U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy joined César and more than 8,000 farm workers and supporters at a mass where César broke his fast. Senator Kennedy called César “one of the heroic figures of our time.”
1970, Summer – César called for a nationwide boycott of lettuce.
1970, December 10-24 – César was jailed in Salinas, California, for refusing to obey a court order to stop the boycott against Bud Antle lettuce. Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert Kennedy, visited César in jail.
1971 – The UFW moved from Delano to La Paz in Keene, California, which is southeast of Bakersfield. With table and wine grape contracts, and some agreements covering vegetable workers, UFW membership grew to nearly 80,000.
1972, May 11-June 4 – César fasted a second time for 25 days in Phoenix, Arizona, in protest of a law that denied farm workers the right to strike and/or boycott for better working conditions.
1973, Spring-Summer – A bitter three-month strike by grape workers in California's Coachella and San Joaquin valleys began. Thousands of strikers were arrested for violating anti-picketing injunctions, hundreds were beaten, dozens were shot and two were murdered. In response to the violence, César called off the strike and began a second grape boycott.
1973-1975 – A nationwide Louis Harris poll documented that 17 million Americans were boycotting grapes. Many were also boycotting lettuce and Gallo wine in support of UFW campaigns.
1975, June – Jerry Brown became governor and signed a state law that guaranteed California farm workers the right to organize and bargain with their employers. César’s efforts pushed the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act through the state legislature.
1979 January-October – The UFW began strikes against several major lettuce and vegetable growers throughout the state. Rufino Contreras, a 27-year-old striker, was shot and killed in an Imperial Valley lettuce field by a grower's foremen.
1980s – The number of farm workers protected by UFW contracts grew to nearly 45,000.
1984 – César declared a third grape boycott.
1986 – César kicked off the “Wrath of Grapes” campaign to draw public attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children.
1988 – At the age of 61, Chávez conducted his last and longest public fast for 36 days in Delano to call attention to farm workers and their children stricken by pesticides.
1988-1993 – César recovered from his fast and continued pressing the grape boycott and leading farm worker organizing efforts.
1992, Spring-Summer – César worked with then UFW First Vice President Arturo Rodriguez to lead vineyard walkouts in the Coachella and San Joaquin valleys. As a result, grape workers won their first industry-wide pay hike in eight years.
1993, April 23 – César died peacefully in his sleep at the modest home of a retired San Luis, Arizona, farm worker. César was in Arizona conducting UFW work at the time of his death.
1993, April 29 – More than 40,000 mourners marched behind César's plain pine casket during funeral services in Delano.
1993 – Chávez family and friends established the César E. Chávez Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable organization dedicated to maximizing human potential to improve communities by preserving, promoting and applying the legacy and universal values of civil rights leader César E. Chávez.
César E. Chávez was a Mexican-American farm worker who became a great force as a union leader, civil rights leader, environmentalist and humanitarian. With courage, sacrifice and hope, he provided service to others and dedicated his life to bring justice, dignity and respect to farm workers and to poor people everywhere. He worked to improve the lives of farm workers and he helped lead the United Farm Workers to victory in their fight for better working and living conditions. He led a nonviolent social movement to bring about change and to demand civil rights. His efforts against the use of harmful pesticides gained the support of citizens across the State of California and throughout the United States. He inspired millions of people to work and support his efforts for social change and justice. He received numerous honors for his work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, the highest honor awarded to a civilian, and the creation of a holiday and day of service and learning by the State of California and other states and cities.
César was born in 1927 on a small farm near Yuma, Arizona, to Librado and Juana Chávez. He was one of six children. His grandparents had come to the United States in the 1880s to escape the poverty of Mexico. As a child, César was influenced by his mother and grandmother, who taught him about kindness, feeding the hungry and nonviolence. They also gave him a deep sense of spiritual faith. His father taught him to be a man of action that stood up for others. In 1937, during the Great Depression, César was ten years old when his family lost their land in Arizona. The family was forced to join the 30,000 migrant farm workers that traveled throughout California looking for work harvesting food in the fields.
Life as a Farm Worker
For ten years, César’s family moved from town to town in order to find work. Once they found work, they had to rent run-down shacks with no heat or water from the growers who owned the land. There was no running water, no bathroom, only one gas burner to cook on and unbearable heat. There were so many farm workers looking for work that the growers could treat them however they wanted. Pickers had to bend over all day. Many crops had been dusted with poison to kill insects. The poison made some workers sick. They worked long hours and were not always paid what they had been promised. Since most workers could not speak English, they could not argue. If the workers complained, the growers would fire them. The Chávez family worked long hours in the fields, from 5:00 a.m. until sunset, and were paid so little they often did not have enough money to buy food. César lived in the poverty shared by thousands of migrant farm worker families, and later said that the suffering made him strong.
The Pain of Prejudice
César experienced the pain of prejudice as a small child in Arizona and later in California. César spoke only Spanish as a child, and the children at school would make fun of his accent and call him a “dirty Mexican.” Teachers would hit him with rulers if he spoke Spanish in school. In California, a teacher made him wear a sign around his neck, which read, “I’m a clown. I speak Spanish.” When he was ten, he tried to buy a hamburger at a diner with a sign that read “white trade only.” The girl behind the counter laughed at him and told him that they didn’t serve Mexicans. César felt the pain of being treated unfairly just because he was different. This pain stayed with him his entire life, and as an adult the pain shaped his commitment to make all people feel as if they were worthy human beings no matter what their background might be.
César Forced to Leave School
In 1942, when César was in eighth grade, his father was injured in a car accident and César quit school in order to work in the fields with his brother and sister. By the time he dropped out of school, he had attended more than 30 schools. Since migrant students did not stay long in one place and couldn’t speak much English, they had a hard time in school. César did not want his mother to have to work. Working in the fields was very difficult. The growers demanded that farm workers use the short-handled hoe, so that workers could be close to the ground while thinning the plants; this hoe caused severe back pain. Often there was no clean water to drink or bathrooms for the farm workers to use and they had to work around dangerous pesticides. César worked long hours and felt that the growers treated farm workers without dignity, as if they were not human beings. He knew this was not right. As César learned English he could speak with non-Latino workers, and from them he found out which farms paid best, where housing was better and where the owners did not cheat the workers. He told other Mexican-American families what he learned so they would not suffer as he and his family had. He tried to persuade them to go together to the farm owners and ask for more pay and better housing. Most workers turned him down, afraid they would lose their jobs.
César Joins the Navy
In 1944 César joined the United States Navy and served overseas for two years. While in the Navy, he witnessed that other people suffered the pain of prejudice because they spoke different languages or were of different heritages. After the war he returned to California to help his family work in the fields. He found that migrant workers’ lives had not changed.
In 1948 when César was twenty-one years old, he married Helen Fabela. He had met Helen when he was fifteen. She, too, worked in the fields. They moved to San Jose, California, where César worked in apricot orchards and a lumberyard. They lived in a barrio called “Sal Si Puedes” in Spanish. In English this means “get out if you can.” Together, César and Helen had eight children. Helen became an important partner with César as he began to fulfill his dream of improving the lives of farm workers.
A New Life of Service
In 1948 César met people and read books that would change his life forever. He met Father Donald McDonnell, who spoke to César about solving the poverty and unjust treatment of the farm worker. He asked César to read books on labor history, St. Francis of Assisi and Louis Fischer’s The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. From these books, César learned about the history of unions, nonviolence, sacrificing to help others and social change, and these ideas reminded him of his family’s teachings. César said that it was at this time in his life when his real education began. In 1952 César met Fred Ross, who worked for the Community Service Organization (CSO). Ross explained how people who lived in poverty could begin to help themselves. César went to work for the CSO and registered many Latino voters. César became the Director of the CSO in California. In Oxnard, California, César helped farm workers regain their jobs, but they soon lost their jobs again. César knew that the farm workers needed to organize themselves and become a collective force in order to protect their rights. The CSO did not want to organize farm workers, so César quit the CSO, moved his family to Delano and began organizing farm workers there.
The United Farm Workers
In 1962 César and his wife Helen moved with their children to Delano, California, in order to organize farm workers. César worked for three years recruiting and teaching farm workers how to solve their problems. Since César did not earn much money while organizing farm workers, Helen picked grapes to support the family. The farm workers grew to trust César and many decided to join his union. In 11 months, he visited 87 communities and held many gatherings to get workers to join the union. When 300 members were signed up, he called a meeting. If each family paid a small amount, he said, the union could open grocery stores, drugstores and gas stations where workers could buy things that were less expensive than the same things in other stores. It could hire lawyers to represent them; it could even lend money. He wanted all activities to be nonviolent, and he took no pay while working long hours. Food and clothing for his family came from donations. César needed help and asked people to join him in Delano to help him organize and to become leaders in the union. These people came and worked without pay and were fed by farm workers. Farm workers had no laws to protect them. Unscrupulous growers could pay them as little as they liked; they could make them work long hours without rest breaks, water to drink or toilets. In 1962 the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) was born. It would later become known as the United Farm Workers (UFW). César E. Chávez was elected president; Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla, vice-presidents; and Antonio Orendain, secretary-treasurer. The union adopted a flag that had a black eagle that represented the dark situation the farm worker found himself in, a white circle that signified hope and a red background that represented the sacrifice and work the UFW would have to suffer in order to gain justice. Their official slogan was “Viva La Causa” (Long Live Our Cause). César wanted to build a strong union that could fight for social justice.
The Famous Delano Grape Strike
In 1965, César and the NFWA joined the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a Filipino farm worker organization, in the famous Delano Grape Strike. The two organizations targeted the Schenley Industry, the Di Giorgio Corporation, S&W Fine Foods and Treesweet, all organizations (“growers”) who grew crops in the fertile fields of California and employed thousands of farm workers. The strikers wanted contracts that would force the growers to follow certain rules regarding hiring, better working conditions, better pay and control of pesticides. They also wanted the growers to give them respect and dignity in the fields. The growers did not want to spend money on the improvements nor did they want to give the workers power, so the growers fought the strike. The two farm worker organizations joined to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). When UFWOC went on strike, the members refused to work and they picketed the fields with signs and flags trying to get other workers in the fields to join the strike. The growers brought in strikebreakers to harass the picketers, sprayed the picketers with pesticides and used shotguns and dogs to frighten them. Most of the strikers remained on the picket lines, and César reminded them constantly that they were not to use violence of any kind. César said that nonviolence was more powerful than violence, and that it was the only way to win peace and justice. César taught the union members how to react and act peacefully, even when the growers used violence against the strikers. César had studied Gandhi’s use of the power of nonviolence in his struggle for social justice in India, and César deeply believed that the strike would have to be one of nonviolence if they were to win.
Hundreds of people of all cultures, backgrounds and religions came to Delano to help with the grape strike. Many churches of all different faiths supported the strike. César thought that all religions were very important and he welcomed their support. The national media covered the use of violence by the growers against the nonviolent striking farm workers. NBC aired a documentary called “The Harvest of Shame” that showed how farm workers were forced to live in poverty. Millions of Americans and political leaders saw that César was fighting for the justice that America promises all of its citizens. Other labor unions supported the strike. César called for a national boycott of grapes. During a boycott the growers lose money because people stop buying the food that the growers sell in the supermarkets. Eventually the growers were forced to negotiate with the farm workers. César believed that the American people had a sense of justice and he was right. Millions of Americans supported the boycott and stopped buying grapes because they understood the injustices that the farm workers suffered.
In 1966 César organized a 350-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, California, in order to get support for the strike from the public, other farm workers and the governor. Although César’s feet were swollen and bleeding, he continued to march. When the march reached Stockton, it had grown to 5,000 marchers. It was then that the growers contacted César and agreed to recognize the union and sign a labor contract that would promise better working conditions and higher wages. This was the first contract ever signed between growers and a farm workers union in the history of the United States, but César’s work had just begun.
César’s First Fast
In 1968 César went on the first of three public fasts to protest the violence that was being used on both sides of the strike. When César fasted, he would stop eating in order to gain spiritual strength and communicate with people on a spiritual level. People from all over the United States felt the importance of his fasts; his quiet sacrifice spoke to many people about the injustice that existed for farm workers. When he ended his fast, 8,000 people, including Robert Kennedy, were there to support him. The media would cover his fasts and he would receive letters of support from politicians, religious leaders and such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Four More Years of Striking
César had won his first contract, but there were still many growers in California who had not recognized the UFW (formerly the UFWOC), and for the next four years, the union continued to nonviolently strike against the growers. The UFW continued to grow in strength because of the national boycott. It also grew because César built a national coalition of students, consumers, trade unionists, religious groups and minorities. César's quiet dedication and sacrifice had inspired many to help the UFW. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent César a telegram stating that he and César were united because they both had the same dream for a better tomorrow. By 1970, 85% of all the grape growers in California had signed contracts with the UFW. César E. Chávez, a gentle man of vision, had worked to revolutionize the relationship between growers and farm workers. He had started a nonviolent movement that demanded civil rights and economic justice for all people.
1970 to 1993
From 1970 to 1980, César and the UFW continued to boycott and strike for farm workers’ rights and the control of dangerous pesticides that are sprayed on crops. Although César won many victories, the struggle for justice, fair treatment, respect and dignity were always in jeopardy. However, César never gave up. He kept working and had faith that people united could create a better world. In 1975, due to César's efforts, the Supreme Court outlawed the short-handled hoe, which had injured the backs of thousands of farm workers who were forced to use it. In June 1975, the UFW sponsored a farm-labor law with the support of growers. Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gave farm workers the right to organize a union and to hold elections. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act remains the strongest law nationwide protecting the rights of farm workers. By 1978 the union had 100,000 members and had won a contract with the largest lettuce grower in the United States. In the 1980s César traveled to the Midwest and the eastern states in order to teach people about the dangers of the pesticides being sprayed on crops. The pesticides caused cancer and birth defects in the children of farm workers. In 1988 César conducted a 36-day “fast for life” to draw attention to the harmful effects of pesticides. Thousands of people supported him by continuing his “fast for life” in 3-day contributions that were passed on from one person to another. In the end, the growers listened to his concerns and began reviewing their use of pesticides. The State of California also revised its use of pesticides because of his efforts. In the 1990s César recovered from his fast and continued to boycott grapes. In 1992 he received an honorary Doctorate Degree from Arizona State University and attended graduation ceremonies. He was very proud of the honor because he believed that education is very important, and his dream was that all children should have the opportunity to get a quality education.
César E. Chávez worked right up until the night he died peacefully in his sleep. He died at the age of 66, on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona. He was in Arizona helping lawyers fight a lawsuit against the UFW. His funeral was held on April 29, 1993, in Delano, California, and more than 40,000 mourners came to honor him. It was their last opportunity to march with a humble man of great strength and vision that had bettered the lives of many people.
César E. Chávez will be remembered as a leader and for his dedication to justice, nonviolence and service to others. He is an American hero who will continue to inspire people to respect life, stand up for justice and to work together for the good of humanity. Senator Robert F. Kennedy noted that César Chávez was “one of the heroic figures of our time.”