Last Updated 03 Apr 2020

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

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"Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" is the cornerstone of our nations Declaration of Independence. When considering this quote and identifying an individual or group of individuals who have continued to pursue this belief in the twentieth century and beyond, one must consider the name Cesar Chavez and the organization, The United Farm Workers, he was so instrumental in its formation, as being synonymous with this phrase. (U. S. Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776))

Cesar Estrada Chavez was born March 31, 1927 on a small farm near Yuma, Arizona that his grandfather had homesteaded during the 1880's. Chavez was the second born of six children to Librado and Juana Chavez. At age 7 Cesar began school, but found it very difficult due to the fact that his family only spoke Spanish. Chavez preferred to learn from his uncles and grandparents who would read to him in Spanish and additionally he learned many things from his mother who believed that violence and selfishness were wrong and stressed this with all her children.

In the 1930's, at age 10, Chavez was forced to begin his life as a migrant farm worker when his father lost the land homesteaded by his grandfather during the Great Depression. These were bitterly poor times for the Chavez family and together with thousands of other displaced families, they migrated throughout the Southwestern United States, laboring in the fields and vineyards. Cesar in an effort to help support his parents and brothers and sisters dropped out of school after the eighth grade. (www. clnet. ucla. edu) At the age of 18, Chavez joined the U. S.

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Navy and served in the western Pacific front during the end of World War II. In 1948, Cesar married Helen Fabela, who he had met while working the vineyards in Delano, they later settled in the East San Jose barrio of Sal Si Puedes, where Chavez later authored a book entitled "Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can)". Following his return from serving in the U. S. Navy and his marriage to Helen, he returned to the fields as a migrant farm laborer, but he began to fight for change. That same year, 1948, Cesar took part in his first of many strikes in protest of low wages and poor working conditions.

However, within several days the workers were forced back to the fields. In 1952, Chavez met Fred Ross, who was an organizer for a group known as the Community Service Organization (CSO), which was a barrio-based self-help group that was sponsored by a Chicago-based group which had been formed by Saul Alinsky called the Industrial Area Foundation. Chavez soon became a full-time organizer with CSO, coordinating and spearheading voter registration drives, battling racial and economic discrimination against Hipic residents, and organizing new CSO chapters across California and Arizona.

Chavez became the national director of CSO in the late 1950's and early 1960's, but his dream was to create an organization to help farm workers whose suffering he not only empathized with, but had shared and endured. After approximately 10 years of acting as the national director and continuing to organize Hipic's throughout California and Arizona for the CSO, Chavez resigned his paid position, the first regular paying full-time job he had since being discharged from the Navy, as he was unable to convince the CSO to commit itself solely to farm worker organizing.

Following his resignation he moved his wife and 8 children back to Delano, California where he became a full-time organizer of farm workers and founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) , and this newly founded organization grew rapidly. (www. clnet. ucla. edu) In 1965 the NFWA, headed by Chavez, began a boycott of grape growers in Delano, California, which lasted some 5 years. In 1966, during this boycott, Chavez led his followers on a 340 mile march to the state capitol in Sacramento, California to bring the plight of the farm workers to national attention.

The march started with only 75 workers and supporters and the rally ended in Sacramento with over 10,000 people on the capitol steps. That same year Schenley Vineyards was the first grower to negotiate this nation's union contract with a farm union, the NFWA. In 1966, the NFWA merged with the mostly Filipino-American union, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). As the strike continued and the story of the farm workers became more widely known in the United States and around the world, many Americans rallied to their cause and joined the boycott of all table grapes produced in the U.

S.. By 1970 more than 65 percent of California grape growers had negotiated and signed labor contracts with the UFW. Also, to avoid a similar UFW boycott, many of the Salinas Valley lettuce and vegetable growers signed labor contracts with the Teamsters Union. In response to this Chavez and the UFW called for a boycott of lettuce and more than 10,000 farm workers in California's Central Coast went on strike. In 1972, as the UFW membership continued to grow and increase in numbers, the UFW became the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO.

By 1979 the UFW had won pay increases for its members and had signed contracts with a significant number of growers of lettuce and other produce growing farms, and their membership grew to over 100,000. The UFW experienced numerous conflicts with the Teamsters Union which led to the murder of several UFW supporters. These events, coupled with the election, in California, of the Republican governor George Deukmejian whose administration supported the growers, led to many setbacks for the UFW movement as thousands of farm workers were fired, and their membership began to decline.

From the mid 1980's through the early 1990's Chavez and the UFW continued their fight for improved conditions for farm workers. On April 23, 1993, Cesar Chavez died in his sleep at the home of a migrant farm worker in San Luis, Arizona. In commemoration of his life 35,000 mourners walked behind Chavez's casket during his funeral which was held 6 days after his death in Delano, California. In 1994, President Bill Clinton honored Cesar Chavez's fight for farm workers rights by awarding him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

In his citation President Clinton praised Chavez for having "faced formidable, often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence". (www. ufw. org) Following his death, Chavez was succeeded as leader of the UFW by the veteran UFW organizer, Arturo S. Rodriguez. In 1994, in honor of Cesar Chavez, Rodriguez and his supporters retraced the steps of Chavez's historic march of 1966. By the time this commemorative march reached the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento it had amassed over 20,000 in UFW workers and supporters, thus marking the start of a new UFW campaign to unit, organize, and empower farm workers.

This reinvigoration of the UFW movement has since signed up more workers in California as well as Florida and the state of Washington. Since this rejuvenation of membership the UFW, in the early 21st century, has continued to fight for better wages, win better collective bargaining rights, and gain better housing and sanitation for its worker members as well as restrict the use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and other dangerous pesticides which are commonly used by growers. Cesar Chavez, by his tenacity, drive, and personal efforts, left our world better than he found it, and his legacy inspires us still.

He was for his own people, the farm worker, who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency and who associated themselves and their hopes on this man who, with faith and discipline, soft spoken humility, and amazing inner strength, led a courageous life. Every day in California and in other states where farm workers are organizing, Cesar Chavez lives in their hearts and he lives wherever Americans farm workers, who he inspired, work nonviolently for social change. (www. ufw. org)

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