After encountering the violent sword of injustice at a young age, Cesar Chavez became the voice of the unheard. The revolutionary civil rights activist demanded equal rights for migrant field workers from all walks of life. He was famous for his civil disobedience tactics and controversial fasts. In 1962, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which is presently known as the United Farm Workers (UFW).
Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president and fellow warrior of Chavez says, [Chavez] is a symbol of hope. Through his leadership, the rights of migrant farm workers were recognized and laborers gained the respect they deserved. Rodriguez recalls the fasts saying, The fasts focused national attention to the problems of farm workers. Chavez was willing to sacrifice his own life for the rights of the people. Many thought he was crazy for doing these long fasts, with his final one lasting 36 days. Other farm workers were outraged and felt they were ineffective and too religious. Rodriguez recalls Chavezs words, We have proved it before through persistence, hard work, faith and willingness to sacrifice. We can win and keep our own self-respect and recommitment to the struggle for justice through non violence.
Chavez had strong ties to the African American community in the midst of the civil rights movement. Chicano/a studies professor, Jorge Garcia at California State University at Northridge remembers the fight. He says, the movement was a two edged sword. It gave the opportunity to work together with the Philipino community and the African American community. Garcia says the Black Panthers were heavily involved with the UFW. They frequently supported boycotts, protests and published articles about the UFW in the Panthers newsletter, The Crusader. At the time, black workers were in the field, particularly in Fresno and Bakersfield, Garcia says.
Although they only met once, Chavez and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a close relationship, communicating by telegram. Irv Hershenbaum, first vice president of UFW and with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) worked with Chavez 21 years and remembers Dr. King saying, Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity. Hershenbaum says Chavez was motivated by his own experience with segregation.
Born March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Ariz., Cesar Estrada Chavez experienced discrimination at a young age. Watching white land owners take advantage of his family and experiencing racism during and after his service in the US military, Chavezs passion grew for justice and education. He studied Gandhi and other peaceful civil rights leaders. Much of his inspiration came from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King as well.
Chavez has inspired others world wide and has harvested a garden of labor organizations. Mary Gutierrez of the AFL-CIO explains the foundation of the organization, He is everything of what we do. He is one those labor leaders that is recognized around the world. The AFL-CIO is dedicated in supporting and servicing labor workers of Los Angeles.
Recently, the AFL-CIO victoriously fought for the rights of sixteen hotel workers near the LAX. With the help of a seven day fast and persistence, a law was passed for fair living wages for hotel workers in the LAX district.
Several laws and regulations have been instituted through the efforts of Chavez and his supporters. The biggest was the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gives farm workers the right to organize, vote in state-supervised secret-ballot elections and bargaining with their employers, Rodriguez says. Chavez and labor workers fought to have regular breaks, fair wages and necessary accommodations in the field like bathrooms and water.
After his untimely death April 23, 1993, workers nationwide continue to unite in the spirit of Cesar Chavez. Gutierrez says Chavez brought unity and reinforced the teachings of Dr. King in the Latino community. She says he was the MLK for farm workers. Chavezs legacy lives on.