March 31st marks the observance of César Chávez Day. To commemorate the occasion, I’d like to offer a few words about who the man was, why we mark his life, and the dangers involved in so doing.
Who was Chávez?
Born March 31, 1927, the holiday is meant to coincide with the birthday of this legendary union organizer. Chávez, who founded the United Farm Workers (UFW)–a union representing the labor rights of agricultural workers–died in April 1993. Legislation creating a day in honor of his life and legacy first came into law in California in 2000. Today, César Chávez Day is an official holiday in eight states (California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Michigan) and a supported day of recognition in countless towns and cities.
Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona, the son of two land-owning Mexicans. For the first ten years of his life, he lived on his family’s farm as they made a simple living off what they produced. As a child in school, he encountered the kinds of discrimination typical of most Mexicans of his generation: he was called racist and derogatory names by white children and teachers, and he was reprimanded for speaking Spanish. As he remembered, “When we spoke Spanish, the teacher swooped down on us. I remember the ruler whistling through the air as its edge came down sharply across my knuckles.”
In 1937, after having been evicted from their land, the Chávez family survived the Depression by packing up their things in a car and joining the ranks of the hundreds of thousands who became migrant laborers. Finding a new home in California, the young Chávez and his family worked in the fields as migrants, waking before dawn to work stooped over in the dirt and moving with the seasons to a new place and a new crop.
After serving in the Navy during WWII, Chavez returned to the mainland to marry his sweetheart and begin the transition from field worker to advocate. After working for some years in the fields surrounding San Jose, in 1952 he began working with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a community-based movement seeking to empower Mexican Americans through voting and community mobilization. Working on electoral issues, police brutality, and education, the CSO formed under the guidance of legendary organizer Fred Ross. Feeling a strong pull toward migrant workers in the fields, after a decade, Chávez left the CSO in order to devote his full attention to the agricultural worker.
Then as now, agricultural workers were exempt from the standards of the National Labor Relations Board, federally-mandated regulations which protected workers’ rights to unionize. Thus, before working on solutions to the many problems farmworkers faced (low pay, discrimination, physical abuse, exposure to toxins, etc.), Chávez had to first secure their right to form a union. This drove him to apply his CSO skills in creating the National Farm Workers Association. After years of hard work, Chávez and his fellow organizations Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Medina, could boast a fledgling union of representing some 1200 Mexican American families. Still, no formal contracts with employers existed.
In 1965, the mostly Filipino union of farmworkers–the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC)–decided to strike in Delano, California, where they worked picking grapes. Timing their grape strike at the time of harvest–September–Chávez’ NFWA had to make the decision to support it or act as scab labor. The result was the merging of the two unions into the United Farm Workers (UFW). Chávez became the union’s president, a position he held for the rest of his life. And, in those first days at the helm, the famous Delano Grape Strike began. It lasted for some five years.
The story of the strike is as legendary as the man himself, who by the late sixties had become the most widely recognized face of Mexican America. After winning contracts from most of the employers in the industry, Chávez and the union tackled other sectors of agricultural production–melons, lettuce, berries, to name a few. Winning ontracts that last only for a few years, the union found itself constantly fighting to preserve their gains.
Sometimes they were helped by government leaders. Most often, they were not. When Democrat Jerry Brown became governor of California, he helped protect the rights of farmworkers to organize into unions of their choosing, and fought for the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. In 1982, when the governorship went Republican with the election of George Deukmejian, the various elements of enforcing those rights were diluted. And so it goes up to the present day, only as strong as the interests behind the governor’s appointees.
The UFW grew to about 40,000 union members at its height. Chávez was an effective leader, making the movement about moral justice as much as anything else. His campaigns were nonviolent, though the farmworkers faced violence at every turn. While the UFW stood for labor rights, they were never far from the broader movement for civil and human rights. Representing people by their location in the workforce, Chávez also made heavy use of religious and cultural symbols making the UFW very much a Mexican union.
He was not perfect. In their first decades, the UFW vigorously opposed undocumented labor, seeing it (rightly) as a mechanism to break strikes and undermine the position of the union. Under this perception, the union called immigration officers to round up and deport laborers at various times. By the 1980s, the UFW had changed its tune, recognizing the mutual and shared cause for human rights stood as a morally more significant matter than legal distinctions.
Chávez fought for the rights of workers with his very body and soul. He used the Gandhian tactic of the fast to bring both attention and moral focus to the movement. As he said, “When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So, it how we use our lives that determines what kind of men we are. It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life.”
Due to his repeated use of the technique, his work in the fields, and his unyielding work on behalf of others, he died in 1993.
Why a day for him?
Chávez is more than a labor leader. Formal, organized labor often opposed his efforts, seeing the unionization of the agricultural sector and of the Mexican and Filipino worker as inconsequential. Chávez did not. He saw it as the height of service. He struggle to improve the lives of the most oppressed, to make them better, more just, more human and humane. For those reasons alone, a day for his is a worthwhile effort.
He is also, arguably, the most high-profile Latino in U.S. history. In a time of racial progress and change, he became the embodiment of the kinds of forward-looking struggles for basic economic rights people associated with the most favorable of movements. For these reasons, he deserves his day.
But that doesn’t mean his holiday is the most fitting-way to pay tribute to his life, legacy, and memory. His work and position within history led to the movement to secure a holiday in his name. The UFW did not support this effort at first. They knew Chávez would have been the last person to be in favor of a day commemorating his life. It eclipses the farmworkers for whom he gave his life. It marginalizes their struggle in the name of his own. It is also a gross contradiction. The official holiday (March 31st) will be a day off from work for State employees in eight states. But what about farmworkers?
A more fitting tribute to Chávez would have been the passage of legislation making the lives of farmworkers better. It could have been about securing the federal protection for them (and domestic workers) to form unions–the only two sectors of the economy left beyond the reach of the NLRB. It could have been more workplace and health security for workers. It could have been a lot.
What can we do?
There is always a danger in formalizing commemoration for a person whose movement demanded a major change in the status quo. They risk creating a distance between the fight “then” and the real life lived “now.” As is the case with the holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., it creates a false sense of accomplishment, when, in reality, the fight they inspired is still very much unresolved.
I will celebrate this day by doing what I do, reading and writing about the causes of human social justice. I will do something to help others think about the struggles to which Chávez gave his life. I will stop before I eat today and remember, eat time I chew, there is a pair of hands, an aching back, a name, a life, a human body filled with dreams that brought this food from the dirt to my mouth.
I will also do something to bring attention to the ongoing struggles of workers. I hope you do the same.