Most Americans recognize that César Chávez was a famous figure—especially if their memory is jogged with the phrase “farm workers.” But Chávez died two decades ago—and most Americans have no idea how he waged and won a seemingly impossible war for the rights of workers.
ReadTheSpirit marked Chávez’s birthday, earlier this year, with a special report on his legacy. We included President Obama’s declaration about the importance of remembering Chávez’s work. We also included César Chávez’s own Prayer for Workers.
SAMPLE CHAPTER FROM
BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS
César Chávez (1927-1993)
The greatest tragedy is not to live and die, as we all must.The greatest tragedy is for a person to live and die without knowing the satisfaction of giving life for others.
I joined picket lines as part of a national United Farm Workers lettuce boycott. I handed out flyers instructing consumers what to buy and what to boycott. But I never knew the spirit of this amazing man until I read his biography. He transformed fields, dirt roads, picket lines and supermarkets into sacred spaces.
Daniel Buttry’s introduction to the chapter …
During the first strike by the farm workers in California organized by César Chávez, a commercial grower obtained a court injunction to severely limit picketing at his farm entrances. The injunction gutted a key union strength: numbers. Chávez called a meeting of the workers and told them that he had run out of ideas. As a masterful organizer, he declared that the answers to this challenge were among the people who had gathered. He needed their help. After the meeting, three women approached him hesitant to speak, not wanting to offend him. They suggested that rather than picket or demonstrate, the workers should gather at the entrances to pray. Chávez knew that this was the idea he was seeking. He set up a little shrine on the top of his beat-up station wagon, complete with a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, candles and flowers. Hundreds of workers came to pray, some leaving the fields during lunch. For two months the vigil lasted, growing in size day by day. Nobody was arrested, and hundreds of new farm workers signed on with the union.
Violence by growers against laborers, supported by governing authorities, has a long and tragic history. For more than a century, the industry thrived on cheap labor driven by a desperate, destitute, unorganized, fearful and generally migrant workforce. A small, quiet man utterly committed to nonviolence created a movement that revolutionized labor conditions for American agricultural workers. With a breadth and passion unmatched in labor history, he built a union from scratch, and caught America’s interest and widespread support along the way.
Chávez’s father had a small ranch in Arizona but lost his land during the Depression. The Chávez family joined the thousands of dispossessed families seeking work in the fields of California. As a child and teen, Chávez picked crops as his family moved from one harvest to another. He experienced discrimination against “Mexicans” by the wealthy Anglo growers and their labor contractors who controlled the jobs. He realized justice would not come unless the workers themselves organized and demanded change.
As Chávez began challenging the rules, he met a priest who introduced him to the writings of Gandhi, St. Francis of Assisi and pioneers in the labor movement. As a young man he was discovered by community organizers who got him a job with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group founded in 1947. Chávez worked for ten years on various organizing projects, especially voter registration. There he learned how to recruit, educate and mobilize people—and he overcame his shyness about speaking in groups. By 1958, Chávez was national director of the CSO, but he knew that his true vocation lay with farm workers.
In 1962, he left the CSO to accept that challenge. In three months, he traveled nearly 15,000 miles, picked peas, worked in vineyards, and met with more than 2,000 workers in the fields, along dusty roads and in their shacks. He would gather a small group together, often in a tiny home and ask if they had heard of the movement. Besides sharing the vision for a union, he listened to their ideas. His key organizing tool was a simple card he used to collect names and addresses and with a place for the worker to put down what he or she considered a just hourly wage. One worker said others always made the decision about what they deserved, but now they were being allowed to vote on what they thought. Those opinions became the groundwork for the eventual negotiations on fair contracts. But a long struggle was necessary first, something Chávez warned the workers would be brutal.
Chávez quickly replicated his efforts through simple yet effective techniques: In a group, he would ask someone to set up another meeting of a few more people in their own home so Chávez could talk to them. Numbers grew quickly and soon a union was formed, eventually known as the United Farm Workers Union. Members helped support each other and developed a community and a commitment that drew still more members into their movement. Before long they were ready to take on some of the growers, demanding to be recognized as the union for the workers and to negotiate fair contracts. The growers refused on both counts, so the union launched strikes.
A boycott became instrumental in organizing, putting pressure on growers and government agencies and dramatically expanding the power of strikes. Chávez would send workers out to key cities across the country to talk with students, churches, unions and other groups about what was happening in the fields and ask for their participation in the boycott. First there was a boycott of table grapes that lasted five years, then of lettuce, then of Gallo wine. The boycotts turned consumers into allies of the workers, mobilizing far more individuals than a strike. “The whole essence of nonviolent action is getting a lot of people involved, vast numbers doing little things”—like refusing to eat grapes, Chávez argued. The boycotts also brought volunteers, as students arrived to help the movement.
From childhood, Chávez was a spiritual person with values that led directly to his profound commitment to nonviolence. For Chávez, truth, nonviolence and God were all one. “Nonviolence also has one big demand—the need to be creative, to develop strategy,” he said. “Gandhi described it as moral jujitsu. Always hit the opposition off balance but keep your principles.”
As the violence in their first major grape campaign heated up, some leaders of the Farm Workers began talking about striking back with violent force. This internal fermentation prompted Chávez’s first fast. Drawing on the deep Mexican-Christian spirituality of penance through self-sacrifice, Chávez sought clarity of commitment through his own fasting. Like Gandhi, Chávez’s first fast was directed toward his followers, not toward his opponents in the struggle. That first effort was effective in renewing the union’s commitment to nonviolence. Over the years, Chávez continued to use fasts as a method for his own discernment about a situation. He also used fasts as an organizing tool to help his followers become more focused and to maintain their own commitment to self-sacrifice. There were many twists and turns in the history of the movement, many victories and many setbacks. Eventually, the United Farm Workers Union was recognized as the major force representing agricultural workers across the country.
Since Chávez died in 1993, his life and legacy have been honored around the world. His favorite jacket now hangs in the Smithsonian. He received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. But Chávez’s true influence can be seen in fields far beyond the regions where this organizer set foot. The United Farm Workers Union website, as of 2011, is one of those signs that his work continues. It contains news and other helpful materials published in English, Spanish—and Thai.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.