Originally from Yuma, Ariz., César E. Chávez relocated with his family to Sal Si Puedes, a barrio in East San Jose, Calif. A complex man, he internalized the inequalities of race and class early on, with his family’s loss of their land during the Great Depression.
At age 17, he served his country by enlisting in the Navy, and two years later found himself working in the agricultural fields. There were no others jobs available for Mexicans besides la pisca, the harvest. He soon became active in a self-help and civil rights organization, Community Services Organization (CSO), situated a few blocks from where his family lived.
Initially hired as an organizer to promote the civic participation of Mexican Americans, leading voter registration drives and speaking for workers’ rights, Chávez became CSO’s national director in 1958. He stayed with CSO an additional four years, before moving on to launch the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962.
Seventeen years into the 21st century, and almost a quarter of a century after his death in 1993 from the accumulated harm of the countless fasts he undertook fighting for workers’ rights, the nation celebrates the life of a man who sacrificed material goods for the betterment of farmworkers. Following the path of Dr. Ernesto Galarza, an early organizer of agricultural workers, Chávez would improve working conditions for those who labor in the fields. Toilets were brought in for workers, and the dreaded short hoe was abolished to curtail injuries of those who relied on it to clear the fields for harvesting.
The secondary boycott, as well as peaceful activism, became the cornerstone of his organizing. With the support of allies and cultural activists, Chávez incorporated culturally informed practices in union organizing on the national and international stage.
Much criticism has been directed at Chávez for what he did or failed to do. For example, he challenged multinational corporations when they imported Mexican workers who were recruited to work in the fields as strikebreakers. Progressive activists charged him with internalized racism against Mexicans, and he was vilified and labeled anti-immigrant. Andvwhile there were other criticisms, I have chosen to focus on the lessons that emerge from his work to improve working conditions of the most marginalized.
Not driven by self-interest, César E. Chávez was a man who fought for the greater good, making some missteps along the way but staying the course. In this difficult time, when Mexican immigrants have become the scapegoats of those who stand to make the most profit from their labor, and when others have been targeted for exclusion because of their difference, this is a man whose lessons I cherish – with eyes wide open. He was a human being who fought to improve the lives of others, while recognizing that you don’t do it alone.
You must have the strength of your convictions and the ability to ask for help to create social change, yet still understand that change starts with you.