From the 1950s to 1960s, California migrant farm workers experienced difficult times, facing unfair working conditions in the fields and discriminated against “white”Americans. All of the Mexican agricultural workers worked in inferior and poor conditions daily, with a low wage. Although providing food for all of America, it was not until César Chávez decided to make a change for these workers with his leadership by forming a union to make a difference. César Chávez (1927-1993) was a Mexican American union leader and labor organizer. Born in Yuma, Arizona, to a family of migrant farm laborers and a life of grinding poverty, he experienced the tough challenges of the farmworker's life. “During this period Chávez encountered the conditions that he would dedicate his life to changing: wretched migrant camps, corrupt labor contractors, meager wages for backbreaking work, bitter racism” (HISTORY). He founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. Regardless of the conflicts he faced and with his dedication, he was able to secure raises and improve conditions for farm workers. This research paper is relevant since it explains how Chávez never wavered from his commitment which made a major difference for workers at that time, and which still protects workers today. However, people still confront these issues and they are still fighting against all opposers.
Beginning with Cesar Chavez’s early life, born in an adobe home, he learned and understood how society functioned with the injustice of the Anglos. An example would be when his dad consented to clear eighty sections of land and in return he would get the deed to forty sections of land that bordered the home. This understanding was then broken and the land was given to a man named Justus Jackson. Cesar’s father then borrowed a lawyer’s money but when he couldn’t pay the interest that was given to him, the lawyer bought the land back then he sold it. This was something that was engraved in Cesar’s memory since this is how he knew that the “Anglos” were the ones in the way in which this changed the mindset for Cesar Chavez to work his way up.
While making his progress, he kept witnessing more of this white supremacy when he was at school. Back then schools only had Anglo teachers and spanish was not allowed. “He remembers being punished with a ruler to his knuckles for violating the rule. He also remembers that some schools were segregated and he felt that in the integrated schools he was like a monkey in a cage. He remembers having to listen to a lot of racist remarks. He remembers seeing signs that read whites only” (UFW). These remarks and memories all had an impact to Cesar because he was experiencing unfair treatment and discrimination just when he was kid. However, he didn’t stayed strong and it kept making him have a stronger mind and higher future goals as he kept growing. As he couldn’t continue his education in 1942, he had to become a migrant farm worker and work in the fields to help his family.
Cesar first began introducing himself into the idea of labor organizing when he met an an activist Catholic priest named Father Donald McDonnell, and Fred Ross, an organizer. These men allowed him to gain experience since they recruited him to be an organizer for “The Community Service Organization.” It was an important California Latino civil rights organization, where it permitted immigrants through programs like voter registration drives, citizenship classes, lawsuits and legislative campaigns. This is where Chavez trained more in depth, which gave him the skills to become a leader.
For over a century, farm workers had been denied an average life in the fields and communities of California's agricultural lands. Resourceful to the state's greatest industry, yet just being abused, farm workers had attempted to sort out many times agribusiness farms that most spectators thought about it as a despairing assignment. Conditions for these farmers were difficult. For example, “grape pickers would make $.90/hour, plus ten cents per basket. State laws regarding working standards were simply ignored by growers. Workers were forced to pay a quarter per cup. No ranches had portable field toilets. Workers’ temporary housing was strictly segregated by race, and they paid two dollars or more per day for unheated metal shacks-often infested with mosquitoes-with no indoor plumbing or cooking facilities” (UFW). All of these were serious factors that were affecting the lives of thousands of farmers which would cause their average life expectancy to be up to 49 years only.
In 1962, Cesar Chavez stepped up and founded the National Farm Workers Association, later to become the United Farm Workers. For him to build an effective union, he traveled for a long time from town to town in the valleys of California, meeting with gatherings of farmworkers in their homes and convincing each one of them to join the fight. Wth the United Farm Workers, and the Organizing Committee, Mexican Americans and other immigrants were given a higher salary for their work in the fields. The expansion in salary made these workers feel that the money would be sufficient to help their family, and carry on with a more comfortable life. This caught the eye of many immigrants, which caused a big increase of many people immigrate to the United States. According to “pewhispanic.org”, the immigrant population had a seventeen percent increase from the decades before, which was seven hundred sixty thousand immigrants living in the United States by mid 1960s.
Although these workers received an increase in their salary, they were still unsatisfied, and believed they deserved more money, more respect, and less racial segregation. A lot of work still had to be done and Cesar Chavez used tactics such as organizing boycotts and strikes against the farm owners. Chavez then directed to the public telling them to stop buying grapes without a union label and “union volunteers were sent out to big cities, where they established boycott centers that organized friendly groups-unions, churches, community organizations-to not buy grapes, and in turn to join in publicizing the boycott” (UFW). With this support, Cesar Chavez became well known by everyone as he was seen as a leader, as someone who didn’t fear this white oppression, as someone who was fighting for justice and freedom. People noticed how bad the difficulties these workers were fighting for which led Chavez to gain more people to believe in him and join his fight. On the other hand, farm owners, all “whites” and opposers, they were beginning to fear these large groups of boycotters and strikers since they were losing their businesses, their control over these farm workers and their dominance they had in society over the large group of Mexicans.
The National Farm Workers Association however still hadn’t finished at all as they were getting ready for a labor strike with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee against table grape growers in Sacramento, California to fight against the exploitation of farm workers. “Seventy strikers left Delano on foot on March 17, 1966, led by Chavez. They walked nearly 340 miles in 25 days” (UFW). They made it all the way to Sacramento in which this task became a very powerful event for the workers. People couldn't believe how they were able to do this, no one thought these farmers had the energy and the strength to march for this long. Throughout this march, they gained hundreds of people which then attracted media attention and Cesar made everyone see the struggles of farm workers for better pay and safer working conditions. The purpose of this march was to make the state government pass laws which would allow farm workers to sort out into a union and allow collective negotiations. Once they reached their destination, “he had 10,000 supporters in front of the Capitol building that the owner of the grape growing company, Schenly, had to sign an agreement with the NFWA” (UFW).
With the leading of Cesar and with his support of his workers, they had finally gained the capability to form unions which would protect the rights of a Mexican American farmers. Workers were given what they wanted; resting periods, restrooms on the fields, water, toiletries, pesticide clothing to prevent chemical exposure, and testing farmers regularly for chemical exposure. In addition, these farmers and families were given health benefits with Robert F. Kennedy’s Medical Plan, which was another reason to why more Mexican immigrants were joining Cesar’s union. However, what Cesar Chavez really wanted his supporters to understand was that they could win without violence. For him, nonviolence is more powerful than violence, which supports you if your cause is just and it gives you an advantage since violence is just a negative where it can make you lose any contest. He hated violence or would kick out anyone from his union that would physically attack others with it. Chavez got the idea for nonviolent actions from the example of Martin Luther King Jr. However, farm workers were full of anger towards Anglos and were so ignorant that they didn’t believe they couldn’t win without violence. For them, fighting back meant that they were tough and they could prove their machismo and that way they wouldn’t be seen as weak people.
Something that Cesar Chavez did which people didn’t understand why was that he announced in “February 1968, he was fasting to rededicate the movement to nonviolence” (UFW). For 25 days, he didn’t eat no food and only drank water. “It was an act of penitence for those who advocated violence and a way of taking responsibility as leader of his movement” (UFW). This in cause affected the United Farm Workers staff and it got unorganized due to the fact that no one knew how to lead like Cesar. However, farmers then understood his purpose of why nonviolence works and all talk about violence ended. In continuation, Chavez kept boycotting, which “spread nationwide to the point where supermarket chains and retailers were being targeted” (NLCC Educational Media). In result, these chains decided to stop selling grapes of farm owners who were not in support of the unions and it was completed with the signing of contracts between the union and the remaining grape farmers by July 29th, 1970, which gave these farmers better pay, benefits, and protections.
As time passed, Cesar Chavez and the UFW kept utilizing peaceful strikes, boycotts, walks and fasts to help farm laborers to continue fighting for their privileges and accumulate support from normal Americans to help them in their endeavors. Those efforts are still seen today through the work of the United Farm Workers of America and the Cesar Chavez Foundation. Although Mexican Americans earned their freedom from farm owners and abusements, they are still facing discriminations from remainings of people who still dislike them. It is witnessed in schools, work, restaurants, and in many other places where kids, teens and adults are still going against discrimination and racism where others make them feel secluded or different based on their looks, culture, beliefs,etc. However, with the unity of Chicanos, people will be able to confront these issues just like Chavez did.
In overview, César Chávez was encouraged to build a union for his Chicano people and all farm workers. He was influenced by his personal experiences, encounters, and heroic examples of other activists. Chávez learned that it was not enough to accept the beliefs, and negative circumstances; instead, he continued to seek new methods until he would achieve his main goal. However, these experiences taught him the real meaning of endurance and not giving up which meant sacrificing himself to accomplish his fight. César Chávez’s decision to fast and his belief in non-violence protesting were key factors that made the difference in the Chicanos’ point of view and ultimately motivated every man, woman, and child to have a sense of cultural pride and nationalism that was once not real and never seen. Personally, me researching about this made me realize what my grandparents went through in their lives, they fought for me and they gave me the opportunity to have freedom here in the United States. As a Chicano, I even learned a lesson from Cesar Chavez. He made me understand that when in the worst of times, you have to stay firm and aware, united with the ones you love. I learned that; there’s strength in numbers, that I should never give up, that changes takes sacrifices, and that everyone is equal. He’s a true leader for me since he was the man that took everyone out of a “hole” where there was no escape. I’ve encountered a few situations where ive been criticized or devalued from others, however, I’ve always confronted these people with my pride of where I come from, from my confidence I have in myself and from what I know im capable of just like Cesar did. Now that I learned more from this powerful activist and being part of the Mexican American culture, it changed my mind and it convinces me that I will also join the fight against those who stand in our way of achieving our full potential in life.