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Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez 40915a (cropped2).tif
Chavez in 1979
Cesario Estrada Chavez

(1927-03-31)March 31, 1927
Died April 23, 1993(1993-04-23) (aged 66)
Resting place Cesar E. Chavez National Monument
Spouse(s) Helen Fabela Chávez
Children 8
Awards Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994)

Cesar Chavez (born Cesario Estrada Chavez /ˈɑːvɛz/; Spanish: [ˈt͡ʃaβes]; March 31, 1927 – April 23, 1993) was an American labor leader and civil rights activist. Along with Dolores Huerta, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to become the United Farm Workers labor union .

Early years

Cesario Estrada Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927.

Chavez was raised in a typical extended Mexican family. They were not well-off, but they were comfortable, well clothed, and never hungry. The family spoke in Spanish, and he was raised as a Roman Catholic.

One of six children, he had two sisters, Rita and Vicki, and two brothers, Richard and Librado. To entertain himself, he played handball and listened to boxing matches on the radio.

Cesario began attending Laguna Dam School in 1933; there, the speaking of Spanish was forbidden and Cesario was expected to change his name to Cesar.

The Chavez family joined the growing number of American migrants who were moving to California amid the Great Depression. First working as avocado pickers in Oxnard and then as pea pickers in Pescadero, the family made it to San Jose, where they first lived in a garage in the city's impoverished Mexican district. They moved regularly, and on weekends and holidays, Cesar joined his family in working as an agricultural laborer.

In California, he moved schools many times, spending the longest time at Miguel Hidalgo Junior School. His grades were generally average, although he excelled at mathematics. At school, he faced ridicule for his poverty and experienced anti-Latino prejudice from many European-Americans. He graduated from junior high in June 1942, after which he left formal education and became a full-time farm laborer.


Relocating to California, Chavez got involved in the Community Service Organization (CSO) and helped laborers register to vote.

In 1959, he became the CSO's national director. In 1962, he left the CSO to co-found the NFWA, based in Delano, California. He launched an insurance scheme, a credit union, and the El Malcriado newspaper for farmworkers.

Delano grape strike

Later that decade he began organizing strikes among farmworkers. In September 1965, Filipino American farm workers, organized by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), initiated the Delano grape strike to protest for higher wages. Chavez and his largely Mexican American supporters voted to support them. The strike covered an area of over 400 square miles.

Police monitored the protests, photographing many of those involved; they also arrested various strikers. To raise support for those arrested, Chavez called for donations at a speech in Berkeley's Sproul Plaza in October; he received over $1000. Many growers considered Chavez a communist, and the FBI launched an investigation into both him and the NFWA.

Cesar Chavez on march from Mexican border to Sacramento with UFW workers
Cesar Chavez (center) on march from Mexican border to Sacramento with United Farm Workers members in Redondo Beach, California.

In December, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) president Walter Reuther joined Chavez in a pro-strike protest march through Delano. This was the first time that the strike attracted national media attention.

Amid the grape strike his NFWA merged with Larry Itliong's AWOC to form the UFW in 1967. Chavez used nonviolent tactics to pressure farm owners into granting strikers' demands.

In July 1969, the Delano growers agreed to negotiate. On July 29, 1970, the Delano growers signed contracts with the union at the Forty Acres Hall, in front of press. These contracts agreed to wage rises for pickers, the introduction of a health plan, and new safety measures regarding the use of pesticides on the crop.

Final years and death

The grave of César Chávez is located in the garden of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California.

In the early 1990s, Chavez was seen as a heroic figure. In 1990, he appeared at 64 events. In 1991, he launched a "Public Action Speaking Tour" of U.S. colleges and universities. His standard speech at these events covered the problems facing farmworkers, the dangers of pesticides, the alliance of agribusiness and the Republican Party, and his view that boycotts and marches were a better means of achieving change than electoral politics.

Chavez's mother died in December 1991, aged 99. The following year, in September 1992, Chavez's mentor Ross died. Chavez died in bed on April 23. He was aged 66.

Chavez's body was flown to Bakersfield aboard a chartered plane. The family stated that he had died of natural causes. As his body lay in state, tens of thousands of people visited it. A funeral procession took place in Delano, with 120 pallbearers taking turns to carry the coffin. Chavez was then buried in a private ceremony at La Paz.

Personal life

When Chavez returned home from his service in the military in 1948, he married his high school sweetheart, Helen Fabela. The couple moved to San Jose, California. With his wife, he had eight children: Fernando (b.1949), Sylvia (b.1950), Linda (b.1951), Eloise (b.1952), Anna (b.1953), Paul (b.1957), Elizabeth (b.1958), and Anthony (b.1958).

Helen avoided the limelight, a trait which Chavez admired. While he led the union, she focused on raising the children, cooking, and housekeeping. Of these children, Chavez's eldest son, Fernando, was the only one to graduate college; Chavez's relationship with Fernando was strained, as he was frustrated with what he saw as his son's interest in becoming middle-class.


Physically, Chavez was short, and had jet black hair. He was quiet, outwardly shy and unimposing. Like many farm laborers, he experienced severe back pain throughout his life.

He could be self-conscious about his lack of formal education and was uncomfortable interacting with affluent people. When speaking with reporters, he sometimes mythologized his own life story.

Chavez was not a great orator. He was soft-spoken and was "good at reading people". He was unwilling to delegate or trust others. He preferred to tackle every task personally. He was also capable of responding quickly and decisively to events.

A tireless worker, he was known for often working 18 hours a day. He used to start his working day at 3.30am and would often continue working until 10pm. When he wanted to criticize one of his volunteers or staff members he usually did so in private but on occasion could berate them in a public confrontation. Once he accepted an idea, he could dedicate himself to it wholeheartedly.

He described his own life's work as a crusade against injustice, and displayed a commitment to self-sacrifice.

He disliked telephone conversations, suspecting that his phone line was bugged. Chavez was self-educated.

Interesting facts about Cesar Chavez

Mahatma-Gandhi, studio, 1931
In the early 1950s, Chavez was introduced to the ideas of nonviolent protest advocated by Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.
  • Chavez was named for his paternal grandfather, Cesario Chavez, a Mexican who had crossed into Texas in 1898.
  • As a child, Chavez was nicknamed "Manzi" in reference to his fondness for manzanilla tea.
  • He was a devoted Catholic and rarely missed Mass. He also liked to open all of his meetings with either a Mass or a prayer.
  • Privately, he also liked to meditate.
  • In 1970, he became a vegetarian.
  • As part of this diet he also shunned most dairy products except cottage cheese. He also avoided eating processed foods. Among his favorite foods were traditional Mexican and Chinese cuisines.
  • Chavez had a love of the music of Duke Ellington and big band music.
  • Chavez enjoyed dancing, although he suffered from chronic back pain.
  • He was also an amateur photographer, and a keen gardener, making his own compost and growing vegetables.
  • For much of his adult life he kept German shepherd dogs for personal protection.
  • He served in the United States Navy from 1944 to 1946. He was promoted to the rank of seaman first class.
  • Chavez was greatly influenced by the ideas of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. He kept a large portrait of Gandhi in his office, alongside another of Martin Luther King and busts of both John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.
  • He became an icon for organized labor and leftist groups in the U.S. and posthumously became a "folk saint" among Mexican Americans.
  • His birthday is a federal commemorative holiday in several U.S. states, while many places are named after him.
  • In 1994, he posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • In 2014 President Barack Obama proclaimed March 31 "Cesar Chavez Day" in the United States.
  • *His slogan in 1972 was “Si, se puede,” Spanish for “Yes, it can be done.” This became the Latino civil rights motto and also inspired Barack Obama's “Yes we can” motto from his presidential campaign in 2008.


Chávez is respected in California and other states. In 2000, California's state legislature started a holiday to honor him. The holiday is on March 31, Chávez's birthday. This is the first time that a US public holiday honored a Mexican American or a union leader. Many cities have streets or places named for him. These cities include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Austin, Texas, Chicago, Illinois, Milwaukee, and Salt Lake City. In 1998 he was inducted into the Hall of Honor by the United States Department of Labor.

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See also

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