The Life of César Estrada Chávez

Mar 31, 2012
1:59 pm

March 31, 1927 César Estrada Chávez was born in Yuma, Arizona to a family of six. Chávez's family owned a grocery store and ranch but lost their land when César's father agreed to clear eighty acres in exchange he would receive the deed of forty acres that linked their home; the agreement was broken and the land was sold. César's father borrowed money to buy back his land but couldn't afford to pay the interest and subsequently their home was sold. 

In 1939, the Chávez family settled in San Jose, California in a barrio called Sal Si Puedes, "get out if you can."  

There, César's family started working in the fields. Also, César and his sister Rita would drive farmer workers and neighbors to the hospital without taking any compensation for gas.

César and his brother attended thirty-seven schools with "Whites Only" signs, constant racist remarks, and punished for speaking Spanish. Eighth grade was his last year in school because his father was injured in an accident and he would not allow his mother to work the field so he became a farm worker.  Regardless, César's passion for education remained in him throughout his life. 

In 1946 he joined the United States Navy and hoped to gain skills he can use in civilian life but quickly learned Mexican-Americans were only allowed to work as deckhands and/or painters; he described his experience in the Navy as “the two worst years of my life.”

César married Helen Fabela in 1948 and they visited California mission from Sonoma to San Diego for their honeymoon. After, he met father Donald McDonnell who spoke with him on farm workers and strikes and influenced him into reading St. Francis, Gandhi and non-violence.

In 1952 Chavez left the fields and was hired by Fred Ross. He worked as an organizer against police brutality for the Latino civil rights group,the Community Service Organization (CSO). Chavez traveled throughout California and made speeches supporting workers' rights and urging Mexican-Americans to register and vote. He became the CSO's director in 1958.

The following time from highlights Cesar's life from 1962 to 1993.

By 1970 the UFW got grape growers to accept union contracts and had effectively organized most of that industry, at one point in time claiming 50,000 dues paying members.

César Chávez completed his 36-day Fast for Life on August 21, 1988. The Reverend Jesse Jackson took up where Cesar left off, fasting on water for three days before passing on the fast to celebrities and leaders. The fast was passed to Martin Sheen, actor; the Reverend J. Lowery, President SCLC; Edward Olmos, actor; Emilio Estevez, actor; Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, Peter Chacón, legislator, Julie Carmen, actress; Danny Glover, actor; Carly Simon, singer; and Whoopi Goldberg, actress.

César Estrada Chávez died peacefully in his sleep on April 23, 1993 near Yuma, Arizona, a short distance from the small family farm in the Gila River Valley where he was born more than 66 years before.

On April 29, 1993, César Estrada Chávez was honored in death by those he led in life. More than 50,000 mourners came to honor the charismatic labor leader at the site of his first public fast in 1968 and his last in 1988, the United Farm Workers Delano Field Office at "Forty Acres."

It was the largest funeral of any labor leader in the history of the U.S. They came in caravans from Florida to California to pay respect to a man whose strength was in his simplicity.

Editor's Note: In honor of the Spanish editorial style, we have added accents to Chavez's name. This is an editorial decision.