Saturday, September 1, 2007

Heros Spotlight - Cesar Chavez

We Will Win. We are winning because
ours is a Revolution of Hearts and Minds
- Cesar Chavez

César Estrada Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona on March 21, 1927. His first ten years was surprisingly idealistic in many ways and filled with happy memories. Years earlier, his grandfather had purchase an 80 acre ranch where he had built a small adobe home. The ranch served as a protected refuge where young Cesar was surrounded by hundreds of aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived on nearby farms. His best friend was his brother Richard and the extended family would gather together on a nightly basis for an evening fiesta. The family grew their own food and had cows and chickens so that they were self sufficient and any lack was never known by Cesar.

This rather fantasy childhood came to screeching halt around age ten due to two major changes in Cesar's life. The first came in the summer of 1937 when an extreme summer heat wave caused the trees to wilt and the crops to die. Many families in the region were forced to pack up and move to California. When Cesar's dad was swindled out of the family home by a dishonest businessman, he packed up the family's possessions and joined others in the exodus in search of work and the hope of a better life in California.

Chavez Family house in Delano

The green fields of California masked what would become a much harder life for the Chavez family. The over crowed living conditions were bad enough to make Cesar homesick but it was the poverty of being a migrant work that really took it's toll and even Cesar was needed to work to etch out even a meager living. Sometimes the family supper would consist of dandelions picked from the side of the road.

It was here that Cesar was exposed to the deplorable working conditions that was the life of a farm worker. The work itself was hard enough. Picking beets would make his fingers bleed while thinning lettuce plants all day would make his back lock up with spasms. But worse yet, the landowners would treat the workers like slaves and would deny the workers with clean drinking water, bathrooms, or even breaks for rest or meals. All the while, the workers would be subjected to toxic pesticides that would make Cesar's eyes sting and his lungs wheeze.

For Cesar, things only got worse with his entrance into school where he suffered discrimination as a Latino student. When he broke the rule about speaking English only, he was forced to wear a sign that read: "I am a clown, I speak Spanish". He also remembered being punished with a ruler to his knuckles for speaking Spanish. Some schools were segregated, and he frequently encountered racist remarks.

He and his brother Richard attended thirty-seven schools over the course of their lives. He graduated from eight grade in 1942 which concluded his formal education. He was not allowed to attend high school because his father Librado had been in an accident and did not want his mother Juana to work in the fields. So instead, César became a farm worker.

During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy for two years where he served in the campaigns to
take Guam, Saipan, and Okinawa. After his time in the military, he married Helen Fabela in 1948. They spent their honeymoon in California by visiting all of the Missions from Sonoma to San Diego. Later, Cesar and Helen moved to Delano where they raised their nine children.

Cesar was influenced by Father Donald McDonnell. They talked about farm workers and strikes. Chávez read about St. Francis, Gandhi and nonviolence. After Father

McDonnell came another very influential person, Fred Ross, who had the Community Service Organization.

Starting with voter registration, Chávez became a union organizer for Ross's organization, a Latino civil rights group in 1952. In this capacity Chávez urged Mexican-Americans to register and vote, and he traveled throughout California and made speeches in support of worker’s rights. He became CSO's national director in the late 1950s.

Cesar Chavez breaking fast with Bobby Kennedy

In 1962, Chávez left the CSO. He co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta, Phillip Vera Cruz, and Larry Larry Itliong. In 1965 Filipino farm workers started the Delano grape protest in favor of higher wages. Six months later, Chávez and the NFWA led a strike of California grape-pickers on the historic farmworkers march from Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento for similar goals. In addition to the strike, the UFW encouraged all Americans to boycott table grapes as a show of support. The strike lasted five years and attracted national attention. When the U.S. Senate Subcommittee looked into the situation, Robert Kennedy, as the U. S. Attorney General, gave Chávez his total support. This effort resulted in the first major labor victory for U.S. farm workers.

In the early 1970s, the UFW organized strikes and boycotts to protest for, and later win, higher wages for those farm workers who were working for grape and lettuce growers. During the 1980s, Chávez led a boycott to protest the use of toxic pesticides on grapes. Bumper stickers read "NO GRAPES" and "NO UVAS" were widespread.

Cesar Chavez utilized fasting as a way to draw public attention, much the same way as his mentor model Gandhi. He fasted many times. In 1968 he went on a water only fast for 25 days. He did that fast again in 1972 and in 1988 he fasted again but this time for 36 days, when the Reverend Jesse Jackson intervened and took over for the next three days. Reverend Jackson then passed the fasting torch on to celebrities and leaders which included Martin Sheen,
Reverend J. Lowery, President of the SCLC; actor Edward Olmos, actor Emilio Estevez, the daughter of Robert Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy; Peter Chacon, legislator; actress Julie Carmen; actor Danny Glover; singer Carly Simon and actress/comedian Whoopi Goldber.

UFW organizers believed that a reduction in produce sales by 15% was sufficient to wipe out the profit margin of the boycotted product. These strikes and boycotts generally ended with the signing of bargaining agreements.

Later in life, education became César's passion. He moved his operations to the small community of Keene which became the office for the United Farm Worker headquarters. The walls of his office were lined with hundreds of books ranging in subject from philosophy, economics, cooperatives, and unions, to biographies on Gandhi and the Kennedys.

The UFW during Chávez's tenure was committed to restricting immigration. César Chávez and Dolores Huerta fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemmed from their belief that the program undermined U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the bracero program in 1964. The UFW was one of the first labor unions to oppose employer sanctions — a federal law that made it illegal to hire illegal aliens in 1973.

Chávez was an ethical vegan and vocal advocate of animal rights. He stated, "I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom. It was my dog Boycott who led me to question the right of humans to eat other sentient beings." He also said, "Kindness and compassion towards all living beings is a mark of a civilized society. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting and rodeos are all cut from the same defective fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves."

In accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from In Defense of Animals in 1992, Chávez stated, "We need, in a special way, to work twice as hard to help people understand that the animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves...We know we cannot be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them — exploiting animals in the name of science, exploiting animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting animals in the name of food."

Cesar Estrada Chavez made his transition on April 29, 1993. The greatly beloved civil rights leader was honored by those he served. More than 50,000 mourners came from Florida to California to pay honor to the fallen leader at the site of his first public fast in 1968 and his last fast in 1988; the United Farm Workers Delano Field Office at "Forty Acres." Hailed as the largest funeral for any labor leader in the history in the U. S. He was laid to rest at his beloved refuge, La Paz, at Keene, California.

In 1994, his widow was bestowed the Medal of Freedom for her husband from then President Clinton. On Citation with that came with the Nation's highest civilian award, President Clinton praised Chavez for having "faced formidable, often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence.

At the ceremony, President Clinton praised Chavez for having "faced formidable, often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence. And he was victoriuous. Cesar Chavez left our world better than he found it, and his legacy inspires us still. He was for his own people, a Moses figure.' The President added that: "The farm workers who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency, pinned their hopes on this remarkable man who, with faith and discipline, soft spoken humility and amazing inner strength, led a very courageous life."

Viva La Cuasa! Viva Cesar Chavez!

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