Cesar Chavez was one of the most dynamic Mexican-American social activists of the 20th century and our Black Sheep Of The Month. He campaigned for better conditions, treatment, and pay for exploited farm workers throughout North America. The civil rights activist, labor leader, and farm worker worked hard for better conditions for agricultural workers.
Childhood and Early Life
Cesario Estrada Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927. He was raised in the Roman Catholic religion and his family spoke Spanish. He changed his name to Cesar when his school forbade the use of Spanish. Because of his love of manzanilla tea, Chavez was nicknamed “Manzi”. He excelled at math and was a big fan of sports.
The Chavez family lived comfortably until the Great Depression. When it hit and Cesar’s grandmother passed away in 1937, the family was forced to give up their farmstead and land to cover her back taxes. He relocated to California with his family where they worked as migrant workers. Chavez attended multiple schools while relocating to wherever his family was required to work.
Chavez joined the U.S. Navy in 1945. He served in the western Pacific during the end of WWII. In 1946, he was honorably discharged after which he rejoined his family in Delano. He married Helen Fabela in 1948.
In 1952, Chavez met Fred Ross, the organizer of the Community Service Organization (CSO) when he was laboring outside San Jose in apricot orchards. Within several months, he was a full-time organizer with CSO, battling economic and racial discrimination against Chicano residents, coordinating voter registration drives, and organizing new CSO chapters across Arizona and California.
Chavez served as the national director of CSO throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1962, he resigned from this job to commit himself to helping farm workers whose suffering he had shared. He relocated to Delano, California with his wife and kids and founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).
In 1965, NFWA joined a union sponsored by AFL-CIO to strike against major wine grape growers in Delano. Chavez led a successful five-year boycott and united millions of supporters to the United Farm Workers (UFW). He worked hard to forge a national support coalition of consumers, minorities, students, church groups, and unions. In 1966, the two unions merged to form the UFW and became affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
By 1970, most table grape growers signed contracts with the USF thanks to the boycott. A new worldwide grape boycott was next. By 1975, seventeen million American people were supporting the boycott and ultimately forced grape growers and companies to back the collective bargaining law for agricultural workers. Since 1975, the United Farm Workers won majority of the union elections. In 1980s, thousands of farm workers working under United Farm Workers contracts enjoyed health coverage, higher pay, pension perks, and other contract protections.
In 1984, Chavez called for another grape boycott. He also conducted “Fast for Life” for 36 days in July and August 1988 to protest the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their kids. Chavez lived with his family at La Paz, in Keene since 1970. He passed away at the age of 66 on April 23, 1993.
The co-founder of the United Farm Workers labor union achieved a lot with his activism efforts and got recognition forthem. He established union contracts for farm workers requiring health benefits, periods of rest, clean drinking water, minimum wages, protective clothing against pesticides, handwashing stations, and more.
In 1991, Chavez received the Aguila Azteca award. It is Mexico’s highest award given to people of Mexican heritage for their major accomplishments outside of Mexico. In 1994, Chavez received the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Challenges and Setbacks
Chavez and his family saw many hardships. His life was shaped by a family misfortune. Even in school, he experienced prejudice because of his poor background and Mexican heritage. In his school, Spanish was forbidden and he would get punished with a ruler to his knuckles for violating this rule. Racist remarks towards him were also common. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work full-time as a farm worker to make ends meet.
What Makes Cesar Chavez Black Sheep of the Month
Cesar Chavez faced many hardships at an early age. As an adult, he devoted his life to helping migrant workers while also having to battle against his own people at times. As a labor leader, he used fasts, boycotts, and marches to fight for the rights of migrant farm workers while also upholding values that put him against scalpers which unfortunately pitted him against fellow mexicans. Nevertheless, he emulated the nonviolent methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Like them, he beat the odds through sheer strength of will.
Two decades after his death, Cesar Chavez remains the most notable Latino figure in U.S. history and our Black Sheep Of The Month. The stories of his success have inspired people across the globe, from kids to workers, and even U.S. presidents. His accomplishments and nonviolent approach to beating the odds make him a black sheep of the month. Till next time! – The Black Sheep
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