César Chávez (1927—1993) was a labor union leader and civil rights activist whose life was dedicated to la causa (“the cause”): to improve the plight of farm workers in the United States by nonviolently negotiating their working and living conditions.
Cesario Estrada Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona, to Mexican-American parents. When he began attending school, he was expected to change his name to Cesar since speaking Spanish was forbidden. During the Great Depression, his family was forced to sell their home and homestead, which Cesar regarded as a great injustice toward the poor. The Chavez family moved to California and became migrant farm workers. Cesar dropped out of school after the eighth grade and began working in the fields full time.
In 1946, Chavez joined the U.S. Navy. After his service, he returned to farm work and married Helen Fabela. Over time, they had eight children together. Chavez was a part of the National Farm Labor Union, and, in an attempt to improve the lives of farmworkers, he participated in pickets at cotton and grape fields. In 1952, he became involved with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group. Over the next decade, he registered new voters and fought racial and economic discrimination. He became the CSO’s national director. After resigning in 1962, Chavez used his life savings to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in Delano, California, along with Dolores Huerta.
In 1965, the NFWA joined Filipino-American farm workers against grape growers, starting the Delano Grape Strike. During this strike, Chavez insisted that the protesters must never respond with violence. Over the course of the five-year strike, Cesar led a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento and led a 25-day hunger strike. In 1970, the Delano growers signed contracts with the union agreeing to raise wages for pickers and give them the right to unionize. The growers also introduced a health plan and enacted new safety measures regarding the use of pesticides on crops. Throughout the 1970s, Chavez continued to lead the union’s efforts to win labor contracts for farm workers across the agricultural industry, using nonviolent tactics.
Cesar died in 1993 at the age of 66 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Cesar Chavez Day is a federal commemorative holiday observed on March 31 that celebrates Chavez’s legacy.
Chavez described his movement advocating for the poor as promoting a radical Christian philosophy, which can be described as a quest for social justice rooted in Roman Catholic teaching. Chavez was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up his material wealth to live with and work on behalf of the poor. Chavez was also influenced by the nonviolent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Chavez’s beliefs motivated him to fight peacefully and passionately for the cause of the poor, to whom he said, “¡Si se puede!” (“Yes, you can!”).
Regarding his mission and his commitment to non-violent tactics, Cesar Chavez said, “When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us, so it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of men we are. It is my deepest belief that only by giving life do we find life, that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men” (The Words of César Chávez, Texas A&M University Press, 2002, p. 167).
In his commitment to fair treatment of workers, dedication to non-violent protest, and care for the poor, Cesar Chavez is someone Christians can emulate.