César Estrada Chávez: Honoring a humble hero

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We can choose to use our lives for others to bring about a better and more just world for our children.  People who make that choice will know hardship and sacrifice.  But if you give yourself totally to the non-violence struggle for peace and justice, you also find that people give you their hearts, and you will never go hungry and never be alone.  And in giving of yourself, you will discover a whole new life full of meaning and love.

César Chávez, Founder, United Farm Workers of America (UFW)

March 31, 1927 – April 22, 1993

EL PASO, Texas — Upon my return to Texas as a young man after completing my Naval duty, I began to hear stories about César Chávez.  In spring 1966, Archbishop Robert Lucy of San Antonio appointed me to head the Bishop’s Committee for the Spanish Speaking and to help the melon strikers in Rio Grande City, Starr County, in South Texas.

Although I would not meet César personally until 1985, during his work to eliminate dangerous pesticides, his vision for justice and his leadership of the United Farmworkers of America in the 1960s and 1970s strongly influenced my community activism within the Chicano Movement.

(Mireya Toy/Borderzine.com)

My personal experience

Starr County rural communities were the most impoverished in the United States. I organized food and clothing drives in San Antonio and Austin for the striking farmworkers there. Many University of Texas students participated, including Ann Richards, future Governor, Ernie Cortez, eventual organizer of Citizens Organized for Political Service (COPS), and Ronnie Duggar, editor-to-be of The Texas Observer.

Recognizing our lack momentum in struggling against the growers and the brutality of Texas Rangers, I suggested a 400-mile march from Rio Grande City starting on July 4th and ending on Labor Day at the State Capitol in Austin. César’s guidance and encouragement via phone and mail throughout the planning process were inspiring and critically important.

Because I knew the leaders of South Texas communities due to earlier political activities, we obtained food and shelter and overwhelming support. As we walked through the small towns, the number of marchers continued to increase. Almost 100 people started, with about 40 from Houston, including former State Representative Mickey Leland. On entering San Antonio, a huge crowd greeted us, including Archbishop Lucy and several public officials.

We ended at the Capitol with almost 15,000 marchers. Throughout this period, César encouraged us to continue our demands for a minimum wage of $1.25 an hour and collective bargaining rights for all workers in Texas.

What César meant for Chicanos/Mexican Americans/Latinos

I am still amazed at how a young man from Arizona with an 8th grade education went to California and started a national movement. He served as a U.S. Marine during World War II, yet he never earned more than $6,000 a year or owned a house. In 1962, he co-founded the United Farmworkers Association along with Dolores Huerta. In 1965, he became the leader of the Delano grape strike that later developed into an international cause, receiving support from many European countries.

Importantly for many of us, César was the first Mexican American/Latino to appear on the cover of TIME in 1969 – and his beautiful portrait painted by Manuel Acosta of El Paso now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. After his death, President Bill Clinton presented his wife, Helen, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work among migrants and farmworkers and other people living in poverty.

Personal memories

When my wife, Sally, and I first met César in person, his conversation was simple, low key, never referring to his past successes in the labor movement. Instead he focused on the future, his message being, leave this world in a better position than we found it.

César and the UFW union provided a focus, a base, a rallying cry from which dozens of other protest and self-help groups emerged. His model and tactics strengthened their efforts, often focused on giving our youth opportunities for college. The Starr County strikers march to Austin succeeded in catalyzing the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in Texas. Today, we have elected officials at all levels, college presidents, and men and women in other state and federal offices across Texas and the nation.

I am deeply wounded that The University of Texas at El Paso discarded the César Chávez holiday. This cruel and thoughtless act demonstrates how insensitive the faculty is to the UTEP student body but even more so given the history of El Paso and our state.

César never asked to have schools, streets, public buildings named after him, or books and movies about his life, nor did he request any holiday in his honor. Nonetheless, César Chávez sacrificed his life, health and economic security to obtain basic rights for all Americans through principled non-violence – in the same manner as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. He did this without seeking money, glory or power. The least we can do is to maintain our Texas holiday and to learn from his life.

Throughout the decades that my family and I have worked to achieve peace and justice, César has always been our model:  “One person can make a difference.” And as he predicted:

“Regardless of what the future holds for our union, regardless of what the future holds for farmworkers, our accomplishments cannot be undone. The consciousness and the pride that were raised by our union are live and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm.”

Resources to Learn More about César Chávez

Compiled by Sally J. Andrade

References

Anaya, Rudolfo. (2000). Elegy on the Death of César Chávez. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.

Bencomo Lobaco, Julia. (2000). Hispanic Woman & Man of the Century: Gloria Estefan and César Estrada Chávez. VISTA, 15:6, 6-8.

Borunda, Danniel. (2003). Postage stamp pays tribute to Chávez. The El Paso Times, April 26, 2003, B-1.

Ferris, Susan & Sandoval, Ricardo. (1997). The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Fusco, Paul & Horwitz, George D. (1970). La Causa: The California Grape Strike. New York: Collier Books, Macmillan.

Griswold del Castillo, Richard & Garcia, Richard A. (1995). César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Kushner, Sam. (1975). Long Road to Delano. New York: International Publishers.

Matthiessen, Peter. (1969). Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. New York: Random House.

Ross, Fred. (1989). Conquering Goliath: Cesar Chavez at the Beginning. Keene, CA: El Taller Gráfico Press, United Farmworkers of America.

The Little Strike that grew to La Causa. (1969). Time Magazine, 94:1, July 4, 1969.

Books for Children

Griswold del Castillo, Richard. (2002). Cesar Chavez: The Struggle for Justice – La lucha por la justicia. Houston, TX: Piñata Books, Arte Público Press.

Krull, Kathleen. (2003). Harvesting Hope: The story of César Chávez. Orlando, FL: Libros Viajeros, Harcourt, Inc.

Marcovitz, Hal. (2003). The Great Hispanic Heritage: César Chávez. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.

Rodríguez, Consuelo. (1991). Hispanics of Achievement: Cesar Chavez. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.

Sánchez de Morris, Clara. (1994). César Chávez: Líder laboral. Cleveland, OH: Modern Curriculum Press.

White, Florence M. (1973). Cesar Chavez: Man of Courage. Champaign, IL: Garrard Publishing Company.

Websites

United Farm Workers of America website: http://www.ufw.org/:  click on HistoryThe Story of Cesar Chavez; Cesar Chavez – Chronology

California Department of Education – César E. Chávez Model Curriculum

DVDs
Common Man, Uncommon Vision. (1995). Kenne, CA: United Farmworkers of America Store, http://www.ufw.org/.

The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle. (1996). New York: The Cinema Guild Inc.,

Great Americans for Children: Cesar Chavez. (2003). Norcross, GA: School Media Associates.

No Grapes! (1992). Keene, CA: United Farmworkers of America Store, http://www.ufw.org/.

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