Cesar Chavez: A Life Devoted to Helping Farm Workers | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Cesar Chavez: A Life Devoted to Helping Farm Workers

According to proponents of local, organic and/or humane foods, we all "vote with our forks" three (give or take) times a day. It's true that consumers have a certain amount of power to influence food producers to change their ways. This idea predates the locavore movement; some of its most effectiv...

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Cesar Chavez Memorial mural, courtesy of Flickr user Salina Canizales

According to proponents of local, organic and/or humane foods, we all  "vote with our forks" three (give or take) times a day. It's true that consumers have a certain amount of power to influence food producers to change their ways. This idea predates the locavore movement; some of its most effective applications were the grape boycotts of the 1960s and 1970s. The man behind those protests was Cesar Chavez, the founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and a lifelong activist on behalf of the people who toil in the fields to bring our food to the table.

March 31, Chavez's birthday, is a state holiday in California and seven other states, and there have been efforts to make it a national holiday. In 1994, Bill Clinton awarded Chavez posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Before Chavez became a leader of the farm labor movement, he was a farm laborer himself. He was born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927. His family turned to migrant farm work in California during the Great Depression, after losing their farm in 1937. He attended dozens of schools and received only an eighth-grade education before dropping out to work full-time in the fields, where he experienced firsthand the injustices he would later devote his life to fighting.

Following service in the U.S. Navy after World War II, Chavez worked with the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group that focused mostly on urban issues. After ten years with the CSO, by which time he had become its national director, Chavez left to found his own group to help farm laborers. Based in Delano, California, and originally called the National Farm Workers Organization, it merged with a Filipino-American farm workers' group in 1966 to form the UFW. This was around the time of the organization's first major victory: the signing of the first genuine contract negotiated between growers and a farm workers' union. This followed a strike, a four-month grape boycott and a pilgrimage to the state capitol in Sacramento. Although the National Labor Relations Act had gone into effect in 1936, giving most workers the right to join a union and bargain collectively with employers, farm workers were excluded.

Throughout his career, Chavez modeled his tactics on the nonviolent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., including fasts, marches, strikes and boycotts. He and others fighting for what they came to call La Causa (the cause) reached out to church groups and student activists, many of whom had also been involved in the civil rights struggle. They also focused their energy on educating American consumers about the conditions of farm workers. In additional boycotts in the late 1960s and 1970s, they convinced tens of millions of Americans to stop buying table grapes, helping to pressure growers to renegotiate a contract with the UFW. They were also influential in the passage of the California Agricultural Relations Act of 1975, which finally guaranteed farm workers in that state the right to organize and negotiate their own contracts.

A later boycott in the 1980s and '90s, in protest against the exposure of farm workers to pesticides, didn't catch on as successfully, in part because it dragged on for more than a decade, until after Chavez died in 1993. According to the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation, started in the year of his death, Chavez never earned more than $6,000 a year, and died without any savings to leave his family. But, although farm laborers still have, for the most part, a hard lot, Chavez's legacy of accomplishments on their behalf—including fairer wages, benefits, safer conditions and the right to organize—had a significant impact on countless lives.

Sources: Cesar E. Chavez Foundation; Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers' Struggle; The United Farm Workers.
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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