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The Life and Work of Cesar Chavez

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Today, Cesar Chavez is known as a civil rights leader who spoke for the privileges of migrant workers in America and made a major impact in today’s agricultural politics. Chavez was part of the agricultural slavery in the United States and fought for what he, and other migrant workers believed is right. Many of his peers agreed that they deserved much more in return for their work and Chavez and his followers unionized to start a revolution to make their voices heard. Chavez and the unions and organizations that he has helped form are known for their devotion to nonviolence. These civil tactics helped form an understanding between immigrant workers and their economy that would lead to more fairness within agricultural employment. If it weren’t for Cesar Chavez, modern civil rights would be much different from how we know it today.

Cesar Chavez was born in the agricultural town of Yuma Arizona, right near the Mexican border, where many immigrants traveled to looking for work in the fields. Growing up, Chavez’s family owned a small ranch that was lost during the great depression. “Issues of ethnicity and citizenship complicated all members of the Chavez family.” (Carnes, 5) His family also eventually lost their home and, desperate for an income, Chavez’s parents realized that they needed to go to California and work in the fields to provide for their family and begin a new life. Cesar Chavez and his family worked in the fields of California for years in an effort to make a living. As a teenager, Cesar saw it necessary that he quit school to become a full time field worker, to relieve his mother.

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After four years in the fields, Cesar Chavez decided to join the United States Navy. His time in the military allowed him to travel across the world and see things from a new, broader perspective. Chavez ended up quitting after two years, however and considered it the worst time of his life. When he went back to the fields, Chavez tried convincing migrant workers to stand for their beliefs and register to vote so that they could have a voice. “Cesar Chavez knew their struggles firsthand. (Grossman, 3) Cesar Chavez encouraged migrant workers to unionize, and fight for their freedom in a peaceful manner in order to see results. His encouragement embedded hope in the minds of migrant workers that together, they can make a difference and their voices can be heard.

Cesar Chavez was gradually gaining followers who shared many of his beliefs, which helped him grow popularity, thus gaining power. As Chavez became more powerful, he began encouraging people to do something about the issues and started mass strikes against major agricultural companies. “From the beginning of the strike, Chavez emphasized the importance of nonviolence in his strategy”. (Garcia, 46) Cesar Chavez and the many organizations that supported his ideals gained supporters over time until an entire revolution had begun.

Many of the migrant field workers were catholic, as was Cesar Chavez, so he used that unity to his advantage, making it one of his tactics toward spreading his power. “Chavez consciously integrated the Catholic faith into his movement. By doing so, he endowed the union with a strong sense of collective identity.” (Prouty, 23) Sharing the religious beliefs with his group of followers gave Chavez an opportunity to use religion to back his opinions toward human equality and peace. “Chavez’s catholic faith and the writings of his hero, Gandhi, turned the farm labor leader into a stalwart champion of nonviolence” (Martin, 748) Chavez incorporated prayer into some of his gatherings and teamed up with bishops of the Catholic Church, which raised his credibility and trustworthiness.

Cesar Chavez helped organize the Community Service Organization in 1952 that brought together Latin Americans that wanted to gain rights and freedom. He then founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. These organizations ultimately joined to fight agricultural standards in California as one, resulting in improved conditions for workers that would last for many years to come. Chávez, who had been organizing farm workers to protest low wages and rent increases in the migrant labor camps, joined with other organizations in 1965 to support a strike against grape growers in Delano. Organized by the Filipino workers of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), the strike was also supported by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). (Garcia, 1) Chavez and his large group of supporters won many other small battles that would soon create an entire revolution. All of the protests in this uprising were peaceful, such as hunger strikes and peaceful protests.

The impact that Cesar made in California was much needed at the time, when many migrant families were struggling with extreme poverty. “Chavez became the first person to successfully organize California’s farmworkers.” (Prouty, 30) Many people migrated to America for work in the early 1900s, and agriculture was a very labor intensive career that always seemed to have openings, as the crops were constantly growing. With an increasing demand for field workers, their days got longer and more difficult, but as more migrants came to work in the United States, their wages also got lower. This combination created a very one sided economy in favor of American farmers that abused these migrants. Cesar Chavez did everything in his power to open the eyes of these workers to the unfair standards in which they worked so that they would stand with him for justice.

The news of Cesar Chavez’s revolts spread across the nation, inspiring migrant workers in other parts of the United States to follow his tactics and stand for their freedom. In states like Texas and Ohio, which also have a lot of agricultural work, had many similar unions formed and migrant workers fought the same battle that Chavez and his organizations had started on the west coast. Chavez drew attention for his causes via boycotts, marches and hunger strikes”. Chavez’s tactics worked so well because they were nonviolent and relatable to his audience. “The influence of Chavez and his union continues to stretch far beyond the fields. They are credited with inspiring generations of Latinos and other Americans to social and political activism”. (Martin, 750) Chavez’s influence as well as that of his organizations gave hope to so many American workers in the 1900s that there were revolutions starting all over the United States.

One of the largest and most successful strikes lead by Cesar Chavez was the Salad Bowl Strike. This strike consisted of thousands of people who protested and boycotted to make their opinions against unfair treatment heard and make a difference. In 1970, migrant workers across the United States protested and boycotted and made so much noise across America, that the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was immediately put into action. The purpose of this act was to ensure equality and justice for all field workers and protect the rights of said employees.

Cesar Chavez’s ideals for a revolution did not end with the unfair treatment of migrant field workers, he also had strong feelings against illegal immigration. Chavez felt that illegal immigrants harmed his unions and discredited. He fought in support of a strong United States and Mexican border, preventing people from entering America illegally as noncitizens. In 1986, Chavez helped pass the Federal Immigration Act which allowed legal migrant workers more stability in their jobs.

Another one of Cesar Chavez’s shocking impacts came when he began openly supporting the gay and lesbian population and their rights. Chavez believed in freedom and liberty for all men, regardless of gender, race and sexuality. Cesar Chavez fought against many bills that would have harmed the LGBT community, such as the Briggs Amendment which would have prevented gay or lesbian people from becoming teachers in California schools. Chavez’s assistance with the growing fairness of the treatment had a major impact, but is still an ongoing and unfinished movement.

The major revolution that was spreading across the nation could not be the work of just one man, so Cesar Chavez gathered other leaders to help him grow his unions. Chavez gathered intellectuals and people who were educated on economics to guide the field workers understanding of the issues and show them how to effectively make a change for the better. “Chavez gradually assembled a remarkably talented group of individuals and shaped them into the leadership of the union” (Carnes, 67) As more leaders were stepping up to speak for the civil rights of migrant workers, more people started to follow the unions and join the cause to help Chavez in his fight for justice.

There were, however many hardships mixed in with the victories of the fight for fairness. The unions faced many political struggles that prevented their points from being recognized. “By the 1980s the [union] had lost its earlier momentum. In 1984 only fifteen of the seventy grape growers in the Delano area were under a UFW contract.” (Garcia, 134) As the movement steadily lost followers, Cesar Chavez and his partners had to work even harder to fight. They were able to successfully pass acts that were making visible change for field workers, which brought back many of their followers and allowed the revolution to grow once again to a steadily moving force that would result in big changes for the future.

Cesar Chavez started his life in the core of American field work and grew up surrounded by poverty and injustice caused by unfair treatment of thousands of migrant workers. Chavez worked his way up from a field worker to an advocate and leader by expressing his strong views and supporting people who wanted to make a change in the way their employers treated them. The Unions that Chavez created made developments that continue to influence the politics of American agriculture today and have shaped the way that field workers fight for what they deserve. The battle for civil rights across the country has been molded by great leaders like Cesar Chavez and is an ongoing struggle that continues today, and will until justice is found for everyone.

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