Csar Chvez: S, se puede!

“There is no turning back. … We will win. We are winning because ours is a revolution of mind and heart.”

— César Chávez

Migrant farmworker, civil rights advocate, unionist, community activist, environmentalist and crusader for nonviolent social change: all these describe César Chávez.

Born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Ariz., Chávez was a second-generation Mexican American who left school after eighth grade to work in the fields.

His parents became migrant workers after losing their farm during the Great Depression. The family crossed the Southwest, laboring in the fields, exposed to hardships and injustices.

Chávez joined the Navy in 1946, and served two years in the Western Pacific. He married his love, Helen Fabela, whom he had met working in central California’s vineyards, upon his return. They settled in the East San Jose neighborhood of Sal Si Peudes (literally, “get out if you can”), and eventually had eight children and 31 grandchildren.

He joined the Community Service Organization, a prominent Latino civil rights group, where he coordinated voter registration drives and campaigns against racial and economic discrimination.

By 1962, Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association with fellow organizer Dolores Huerta. The NFWA later became the United Farm Workers of America, the first successful farmworkers’ union in American history. In its 30-year-plus history, it has led campaigns for dignity, fair wages, medical coverage, pensions and humane living conditions for hundreds of thousands of farmworkers. Chávez called it “a revolution of the poor seeking bread and justice.”

The union brought about the first industry-wide labor contracts in the history of American agriculture, and passage of the groundbreaking 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act to secure the rights of farmworkers to organize.

Making a priority of organizing support from students, labor and religious groups and other racially and nationally oppressed peoples, Chávez set an example for all organizers by forging a broad national coalition that empowered the migrant and immigrant farmworkers. This still provides a valuable lesson in today’s struggles.

The UFW became a significant political force, demonstrating that Mexican Americans could and would participate in electoral politics. Chávez’s work around the relationship between economic issues and political participation was the starting point for a wave of Latino activism that eventually led to the election of thousands of Latino officials nationwide and a major shift in the U.S. political landscape.

Chávez was a passionate believer in nonviolence, following the examples of such leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I am convinced,” Chávez said, “that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice.”

Using tactics such as fasts, boycotts, strikes and pilgrimages, Chávez fought effectively and patiently. He became a champion of social justice who encouraged peaceful means toward peaceful ends. “Nonviolence is not inaction,” said Chávez. “It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or the weak. … Nonviolence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.”

Chávez fasted for 25 days in 1968, and again in 1972, to affirm his personal commitment and that of the farm labor movement to nonviolence. At age 61, he endured a 36-day “Fast for Life” to highlight the harmful impact of pesticides on farmworkers and their families.

Chávez, only 66 years old, passed away in his sleep on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Ariz., only miles from his birthplace. More than 50,000 people attended his funeral.

Schools, parks, streets, libraries, awards and scholarships are now named in Chávez’s honor. Eight states recognize his birthday. In 1994 Chávez was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S. The Postal Service honored him with a postage stamp in 2004, and he has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Chávez never earned more than $6,000 a year and never owned a home. He was an ordinary man with an extraordinary vision for humankind.

He stood for equality, peace, justice and unity. He was a symbol of hope for millions of Mexican immigrants and migrant farmworkers.

“There is enough love and good will in our movement to give energy to our struggle, and still have plenty left over to break down and change the climate of hate and fear around us,” he once said.

Years before his death, Chávez was asked by a union member how he wanted to be remembered. He replied, “If you want to remember me, organize!”

Pepe Lozano (plozano @ pww.org) is a People’s Weekly World writer and editorial board member. This is an abridged version of an article in the spring edition of Dynamic, the magazine of the Young Communist League.