Five decades ago, a 35-year-old Mexican-American applied for unemployment in Bakersfield, California, and argued with the caseworker about how to characterize his previous job. He rejected each option: clerk, playground supervisor, intermediate social worker with a second language. None, he said, described what he did. Community organizer was not part of the American lexicon in April 1962. Neither was the name Cesar Chavez. Only seven years later, he would be on the cover of Time magazine.
Chavez’s decision to walk away from a secure job as a community organizer was one of the many brave and fateful moves he made in his short life. But the most significant was his resolution to create what seemed almost impossible, a labor union for farmworkers.
Others had put farmworkers’ plight into the public consciousness, notably John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 and Edward R. Murrow two decades later in “Harvest of Shame.” Chavez went further. He harnessed public outrage to achieve unprecedented gains for farmworkers. At the height of his union’s strength, more than 17 million Americans boycotted grapes to help California farmworkers win contracts.
Chavez drew on an anger that came from his childhood picking cotton and grapes, enduring poverty and prejudice. “There are vivid memories from my childhood—what we had to go through because of low wages and the conditions, basically because there was no union,” he wrote in 1966. “I suppose if I wanted to be fair I could say that I’m trying to settle a personal score. I could dramatize it by saying that I want to bring social justice to farmworkers. But the truth is that I went through a lot of hell, and a lot of people did. If we can even the score a little for the workers then we are doing something.”
The organization he founded in 1962 grew into the United Farm Workers union, negotiated hundreds of contracts and spearheaded a landmark law that made California farmworkers the only ones in the nation entitled to protected union activity. In his most enduring legacy, Chavez gave people a sense of their own power. Farmworkers discovered they could demand dignity and better wages. Volunteers learned tactics later put to use in other social movements. People who refused to buy grapes realized that even the smallest gesture could help force historic change.
The story of the black eagle, the movement’s symbol, exemplifies Chavez’s skill as a tactician. He researched emblems, including cigarette boxes and Nazi flags, and concluded that the most potent color combination was red, black and white. He picked the eagle and directed his brother to draw the bird so simply that anyone could easily replicate the symbol.
The UFW altered life in the fields of California, from banning the short-handled hoe to offering health care and pensions. The victories of the 1970s were in many ways short-lived. But Chavez’s legacy resonates far from the fields, among generations barely born when he died in 1993. Chavez himself has become a symbol—for all those Davids who tackle Goliaths and embrace the slogan, sí se puede: Yes, it can be done.
Reporting on agriculture in California, Miriam Pawel became fascinated by the United Farm Workers, eventually writing The Union of Their Dreams.