“Si Se Puede!” (Yes, it can be done!), embodies the uncommon legacy Cesar E. Chavez left for millions of people around the world.
“If you’re not frightened that you might fail, you’ll never do the job,” said Chavez, according to Education of the Heart Quotes by Chavez. “If you’re frightened, you’ll work like crazy.
Cesar Chavez was a civil rights Latino and farm labor leader from the early 50s-80s.
Today, farmworkers continue to fight immigration issues, low wages, and not being considered essential workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In this situation, Chavez’s words and work still ring true.
“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves,” said Chavez, on the treatment of farm workers.
On March 31, Cesar Chavez Day is officially celebrated in 10 states. He is also recognized during His-panic Heritage Month.
Born in Yuma, Arizona (1927) to immigrant parents, Chavez worked as a manual laborer. He served two years in the United States Navy, then relocated to California in 1939. Where for the next decade, he traveled up and down the state working in fields under harsh conditions.
“We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live. We shall endure,” said Chavez.
Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, along with co-founder Dolores Huerta, in 1962. The union joined in its first workers’ strike in September 1965, with the Agricultural Workers Organization Committee. The two organizations formed the United Farm Workers. Filipino farmworkers were the ones who initiated the protest against the working conditions in the Delano grape fields, according to Wikipedia.
“The color of our skins, the language of our culture and native origins, the lack of formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process…all these burdens, generation after generation, have sought to demoralize us, to break our human spirit,” said Chavez, in an open letter about the grape strike. “But God knows we are not beasts of burden, we are not agricultural implements or rented slaves, we are men.”
Chavez gained national attention because of the strikes. In 1979, after a long struggle, the Delano grape growers signed contracts with the union to raise wages, introduce a health plan, and new safety measures on the use of pesticides on crops.
In 1975, Chavez allied with then-Governor Jerry Brown, to pass California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The first of its kind in the nation, it gave hope to end the cycle of exploitation of farmworkers, according to Wikipedia.
“Chavez pulled up to my Laurel Canyon house in an old car with a German shepherd dog named ‘Huelga’ Spanish for a strike,” said Brown, according to Wikipedia. “We talked for several hours about whether the proposed state law or any labor law could actually help farmworkers.
“Chavez repeatedly said that his boycott was a much better organizing tool because the law would always be corrupted by the powerful economic interests that control politics,” Brown continued. “I argued with him and said that the law would be his best protection.”
But the farm labor laws went unenforced under California’s next Republican Governor George Deukmejian. Chavez used the non-violent tactic of the civil rights movement for his strikes. He was jailed for the Salinas Lettuce Strike in 1970. Chavez was sentenced to 10 days in the Monterey County jail for contempt of court, for violating an injunction preventing a boycott against the growers.
He was visited by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy attended a rally, which included a Roman Catholic mass for Chavez. The event drew counter-protesters opposing the activism in their community.
Chavez began a fast to reaffirm his commitment to non-violence after some of his union members were accused of using intimidation tactics. Dr. King sent Chavez a telegram of support.
“You stand today as a living example of the Gandhian tradition, with its great force for social progress and its healing spiritual powers,” wrote King. “My colleagues and I commend you for your bravery, salute you for your indefatigable work against poverty and injustice.
Dr. King prayed for his health and his continuing service, “as one of the outstanding men of America,” according to Wikipedia.
Chavez cultivated relationships based on his philosophy on how to build friendships.
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him…The people who give you their food, give you their heart,” said Chavez.
In 1993, he died at the age of 66. Hundreds of communities across the nation have named schools, parks, streets, libraries, and other public facilities, after him. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, posthumously.“
The union’s survival, its very existence, sent out a signal to all Hispanics that we were fighting for our dignity,” said Chavez in 1984. “That we were challenging and overcoming injustice, that we were empowering the least educated among us, the poorest among us. The message is clear. If it could happen in the fields, it could happen anywhere: in cities, in courts, in the city council, in the state legislatures,” he concluded.