When Union Leader Cesar Chavez Organized the Nation’s Farmworkers, He Changed History

Cesar Chavez’ black nylon satin jacket with the eagle emblem of the United Farm Workers is held in the Smithsonian collections

Cesar Chavez
The family of Cesar Chavez donated this jacket to the National Museum of American History shortly after the labor leader's death. NMAH

Anyone who has ever bought secondhand clothing—an activity these days for the chic as well as the shabby—knows that in a well-worn cashmere sweater or double-breasted tuxedo there remains some echo of the original owner’s life and times, however faint. Like old houses, lived-in clothing has a story to tell.

This feeling of connectedness can be especially potent with clothing that belonged to someone well known. The ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy and Jackie Kennedy’s inaugural gown have, by now, taken on near mythic magnetism. Not only do we associate these things with an individual but also with a time in our lives, and a time in the nation’s history. So when Harry Rubenstein, a curator at the National Museum of American History, asked the family of Cesar Chavez a few months after the union leader’s death at age 66 on April 23, 1993, for some memento for the museum, he was delighted to receive Chavez’s union jacket. It is made of black nylon satin, with the eagle emblem of the United Farm Workers to the left of the zipper and “Cesar Chavez” embroidered to the right.

“The jacket makes a simple statement,” Rubenstein says. “It’s uniform-like, but it’s not fancy—very American in style.”

In the case of Chavez, simple makes sense. He was not to the mannerism born. Called “one of the heroic figures of our time” by Robert Kennedy, Chavez was a first-generation American whose Mexican-born parents lost their Arizona farm in 1937, during the Great Depression, when he was 10. The family became migrant workers. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 excluded agricultural workers in its rights and protections, so migrants’ working conditions ranged from reasonable to deplorable, depending on an employer’s attitude...or whim. In 1962, Chavez, by then a Navy veteran, left his job with the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group and, inspired by the principles of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., founded the National Farm Workers Association (later to become the United Farm Workers).

The annealing moment for the young union and its leader came in September 1965, when Chavez joined a strike against grape growers in Delano, California, that had been started a few weeks before by Filipino field workers. The strike lasted for five years and led to a nationwide boycott of table grapes. By the time it ended, Chavez was widely known and almost as widely admired. “La causa” had galvanized the movement and attracted people who had never before thought about how their supermarket produce was grown and picked. “I had done a lot of reading about farm labor unions, thought about them, and questioned every farm worker I could find who had been involved in a strike,” Chavez told his biographer Jacques E. Levy in the early 1970s. “It was a sad history of defeat after defeat....But the more I studied the mistakes that were made in the past, the more I believed growers were not invincible. If we fought them right, we could beat them....I felt a union could succeed.”

By the early 1970s, a public opinion poll found that 17 million Americans were refusing to buy table grapes. In the tumultuous year of 1968, some 5,000 people marched through the streets of San Francisco shouting, “Viva la huelga [strike], viva Chavez.” (Many years later, Army Street, a major road in San Francisco, was renamed Cesar Chavez Street.)

Chavez had a deep understanding of the power of public, nonviolent protest. He fasted three times—twice for 25 days and once, in 1988, for 36 days—to draw attention to poor working conditions and the danger pesticides posed for farmworkers and their families. In the spring of 1966, he led a 340-mile march from Delano to the steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento, which occasioned the signing of the first union contract between growers and farmworkers in U.S. history. In June 1975, California governor Jerry Brown signed a state law that guaranteed farmworkers the right to collective bargaining.

Chavez’s jacket was one of several made for officers and high-ranking members of the union. It has come to represent the solidarity of some of this country’s poorest, least powerful workers who stood together to demand better conditions. It also stands, of course, for a charismatic man who became a symbol of resistance and renascence for those workers. It has been part of several museum exhibitions since its acquisition, including “America’s Smithsonian: Celebrating 150 Years” in 1996.

Harry Rubenstein remembers approaching the Chavez family shortly after Cesar died. “One of my responsibilities at the time,” he says, “was to serve as curator of American labor, so I had a background in much of what Chavez stood for. But I made the request with the greatest care, and certainly didn’t take this gift lightly.”

Which is as it should be, since the story this simple garment has to tell is nothing less than an American epic.

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