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Macmillan Learning's Hispanic/Latin(a/o) Employee Resource Group Recognizes Cesar Chavez Day
In recognition of Cesar Chavez Day, Macmillan Learning’s Hispanic/Latin(a/o) employee resource group, VIVA@ML, shares what you should know about this American labor leader and civil rights activist.
Cesar Chavez (1927–1993) is best known today as an activist for workers rights and co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), now part of the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union. He was born in Yuma, Arizona, to Mexican-American immigrants. His family lost their farm in the Great Depression, after which they became migrant farm workers, ending up in California. By the time Chavez finished eighth grade, his formal education was over; he began working in the fields alongside his parents.
After a two-year stint in the Navy, Chavez returned to California and wed Helen Fabela in 1948, with whom he eventually had eight children. In the 1950s and 1960s, Chavez led boycotts, pickets, and strikes in California, fighting for better wages and working conditions for farm laborers. The most notable of these is the Delano Grape Strike, though it was actually started by the primarily Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). The strike lasted five years and ended after the NFWA boycott in 1965–1966, when Delano growers finally bargained with the NFWA. The AWOC and the NFWA then joined forces to form the UFW.
In addition to peregrinaciones, or pilgrimages, to attract national attention, Chavez was known for his hunger strikes. Multiple 25-day fasts helped attract coverage of the Delano boycotts and unfair labor laws, and he even publicly broke one fast with President Kennedy attending as a guest of honor. His last public fast lasted 36 days and took place when he was 61 years old. Some of Chavez’s successes include starting the first credit union for farm workers, building affordable housing for displaced Filipino-American laborers, and opening health clinics, daycare centers, and job-training programs for UFW members. He also initiated a burial program and opened the Fred Ross Education Institute to train negotiators and union organizers.
Chavez attracted controversy even among union members and staff for his strict adherence to nonviolent tactics. The FBI investigated him with concern that he had communist ties, and others said he was motivated by greed and personal gain and described him as a dictator. He was also criticized for his idealism and lack of patriotism. Still, “Chavistas,” his loyal supporters, described him as a humble leader and an effective speaker—even a saint. He was an early advocate of gay rights, spoke out against the Vietnam War, and supported immigration reform.
Chavez died of natural causes at age 66 in 1993. After his death, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. In 2011, a U.S. Navy ship was named after Cesar Chavez. His grave site in Keene, California, is the location of the National Chavez Center, complete with a visitor center and memorial garden. Although not an official federal holiday, President Obama deemed March 31 “Cesar Chavez Day” in the United States, and it is observed in at least ten states. He has received numerous other accolades with parades held and monuments erected all over the country in his honor.
Please check out the Cesar Chavez Foundation if you’d like to learn more.