Cesar Chávez – along with Dolores Huerta and fellow organizers for the United Farm Workers (UFW) union – dedicated his life to improving working conditions and wages for the workers whose backbreaking labor nourishes the United States. Born on March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona, he and his family toiled away in the fields and were migrant farm workers during the Great Depression. Chávez first learned about unions in the late 1930s. But it wouldn’t be until 1962 that he’d begin the National Farm Workers Association – which eventually merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to form the UFW – with Huerta.
In the time in between, Chávez joined the military and returned to the agricultural industry, familiarized himself with Mahatma Gandhi – who later inspired his organizing – and joined the Latino civil rights group Community Service Organization, according to NPR. The group worked to mobilize Latino voters and to tackle issues of police brutality and immigration, and though he became the national director, he resigned after the organization refused to start a farmworkers union. So with his life savings of $1,500, he began the National Farm Workers Association.
Though John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame highlighted farmworkers’ struggle, Chávez put it in the national spotlight like never before. His union pushed for a grape boycott on a national scale. And at one point, as the Smithsonian reports, more than 17 million people in the United States stood in solidarity with the nation’s farmworkers by not buying grapes. The more than five-year strike ended in victory for UFW and agricultural workers. His tireless work led to California passing a 1975 law that allowed farmworkers to form unions to bargain collectively for better wages and conditions.
Eventually, the UFW’s impact waned and with Republican George Deukmejian elected governor of California, farm labor laws went unenforced. Chávez began raising awareness about the use of pesticides to much less success. But what he did for agricultural workers cannot be discounted, and until this day, he continues motivating activists, who push for the same things he fought for decades ago.
As Miriam Pawel, who wrote The Crusades of Cesar Chávez, told The Mercury News, “Fundamentally, his greatest accomplishment was empowering people who thought they had no power. To me, that’s very much his legacy, this idea that people can organize.”
In honor of his birthday, Chávez supporters reflected on how he – who at one point had a hardline stance on immigration – would have reacted to the current political climate, where bigoted discrimination and xenophobic rhetoric have permeated the federal government. They wholeheartedly agreed that he’d be out there organizing.
“Without a doubt, Cesar would’ve addressed [issues affecting immigrant communities],” said Rev. Jon Pedigo, justice for the Diocese of San Jose. “He was a deeply spiritual man. But he wouldn’t see it as a separate issue from the attack against Muslims, the denigrations of LGBTQIA folks … all these things go together. His reaction would be to mobilize people together, for unity.”
Even without his physical presence, his words continue to resonate today. To celebrate his 90th birthday, here are seven Chávez quotes that – just like “Si, se puede” (begun by Huerta) – feel especially relevant in 2017:
“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community…Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
“Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.”
“When poor people get involved in a long conflict, such as a strike or a civil rights drive, and the pressure increases each day, there is a deep need for spiritual advice. Without it, we see families crumble, leadership weaken, and hard workers grow tired.”
“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.”
“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”
“History will judge societies and governments — and their institutions — not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.”
“Society is made up of groups, and as long as the smaller groups do not have the same rights and the same protection as others – I don’t care whether you call it capitalism or communism -it is not going to work. Somehow, the guys in power have to be reached by counterpower, or through a change in their hearts and minds, or change will not come.”