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March 28, 2016

Cesar Chavez Day

As we observe César Chávez Day on March 31, Chavez’s legacy as a civil rights and labor activist provides an opportunity to talk with students about injustice, labor organizing and civil rights and to reflect on those lessons and today’s struggles.

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By Jinnie Spiegler, Director of Curriculum at the Anti-Defamation League

As we observe César Chávez Day on March 31, Chavez’s legacy as a civil rights and labor activist provides an opportunity to talk with students about injustice, labor organizing and civil rights and to reflect on those lessons and today’s struggles.

TM/© 2014 The Cesar Chavez Foundation, www.chavezfoundation.org
 

César Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, and grew up on a farm in Yuma, Ariz. Hard times from the Great Depression caused his family to lose their farm when Chávez was 11 years old. They packed up everything they owned and moved to California to find work, where he and his family became migrant workers. Moving up and down the state working in the fields, Chávez encountered some of the abysmal working conditions that would later inspire him to do something about it.

After serving in the Navy, Chávez worked in the fields for the next few years until he got a job at the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino rights organization. He worked for the CSO for 10 years, helping to register voters and work for equal rights. Chávez urged Mexican-Americans to register and vote, and he traveled throughout California and made speeches in support of workers’ rights.

Chávez believed that nonviolent tactics were critical in helping to improve the lives of migrant workers, and he was greatly influenced by his readings and reflections of other leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Chávez organized boycotts, strikes and protest marches and went on several hunger strikes in order to make lawmakers and employers grant higher wages, better living conditions and more accessible education to migrant workers. He is most famous for his role in leading a strike of California grape pickers in the 1960s.

Chávez’s leadership focused national attention on these laborers’ working conditions, which eventually led to improvements as well as the right to unionize. He formed the National Farm Workers Association, which is now known as the United Farm Workers of America.

Chávez was an optimist who believed deeply in the collective spirit of union organizing, saying: “The road to social justice for the farm worker is the road of unionization. Our cause, our strike against table grapes and our international boycott are all founded upon our deep conviction that the form of collective self-help, which is unionization, holds far more hope for the farm worker than any other single approach, whether public or private. This conviction is what brings spirit, high hope and optimism to everything we do.”

Chávez died in 1993 at the age of 66, survived by his wife, eight children and 31 grandchildren.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What were some of the most important tactics César Chávez used to improve farm workers’ working conditions?
  2. César Chávez was an advocate and proponent of nonviolence, being influenced by the work of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Why is nonviolence so important, and how does it make a difference?
  3. Compare the migrant farm workers’ struggles for better working conditions with modern-day civil rights struggles. What are some similarities and differences?

This lesson was originally published by the Anti-Defamation League on March 28, 2014. It was updated on March 5, 2021.

ADL

ADL is a leading anti-hate organization. Founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of anti-Semitism and bigotry, its timeless mission is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.

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