His name is synonymous with the struggle for justice for American farmworkers, dignity for the nation’s poor, and he is recognized as the most important leader of the Latino people in the United States.
Like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez was a deeply spiritual man. His religion and his devotion inspired his commitment to his non-violent pursuit of social justice.
Cesar’s life as a community leader began in 1952 when he coordinated voter registration drives in Latino communities and conducted campaigns against racial and economic discrimination.
Subsequently, for more than three decades, Cesar led the first successful farmworkers union in American history. Against previously insurmountable odds, he led successful strikes and boycotts that resulted in the first industry-wide labor contracts in the history of American agriculture. His union’s efforts brought about the passage of the groundbreaking 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act to protect farm workers. Today, it remains the only law in the nation that protects the farmworkers’ right to unionize.
The significance and impact of Cesar’s life transcends any one cause or struggle. He was a unique and humble leader who influenced and inspired millions of Americans to seek social justice and civil rights for the poor and disenfranchised in our society. Cesar forged a diverse and extraordinary national coalition of students, middle class consumers, trade unionists, religious groups, and minority communities.
A strong believer in the principles of nonviolence practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar effectively employed peaceful tactics such as boycotts and strikes. But his most profound undertakings for the cause were inspired by his deep spirituality.
In 1966, under a banner that bore the image of La Virgin de Guadalupe, he led farmworkers on a 250-mile pilgrimage to the capital of California to demand that farmworkers receive the basic rights afforded to other workers in America. In 1968 he embarked on a spiritual fast for 25 days to affirm his personal commitment and that of the farm labor movement to non-violence. He fasted again for 25 days in 1972, and in 1988, at the age of 61, he endured a 36-day “Fast for Life” to highlight the harmful impact of pesticides on farm workers and their children.
Cesar passed away in his sleep on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona, only miles from his birthplace 66 years earlier. More than 50,000 people attended his funeral services in the small town of Delano, California, the same community in which he had planted his seed for social justice three decades before.