On March 31, California celebrates César Chávez Day, an official state holiday honoring one of the most iconic Latino leaders in U.S. history. Observed on Chávez's birthday, the holiday is optional in several other states, including Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. In the commentary below, former National Archives deputy director and author of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement Roger Bruns provides insights on Chávez's accomplishments and reasons for why his life and legacy are important to remember.
History has a way of dealing with heroes and icons. First, there is the treatment that sculpts the image as an idol nearly free of imperfections. Then, there is the revisionist treatment that cuts into the myths and tall tales. Finally, there is clearer reflection, recognizing that the man or woman had flaws, sometimes deep ones, that afflict even the most accomplished and successful figures.
In the case of César Chávez, recent revisionist books, scrupulously researched and thoughtful, have moved sharply away from the image of Chávez as a kind of saintly visionary. They have recounted the internal strife that plagued the farm workers movement in the 1970s and fractured many of the gains it had achieved in the harvest fields. They have documented the bitterness and sadness surrounding many of Chávez’s closest associates who left the union or were thrown aside amidst conflict and misunderstanding. They have illustrated how Chávez was not an efficient union administrator, that he was often domineering and controlling, and that the union itself is now a shadow of the force it once was, if only for a few shining years. All of this is true, but . . .
He was the unlikeliest of leaders. Born into a poor family of Mexican Americans outside Yuma, Arizona, faced with an early life doing hard labor as a migrant farm worker in the harvest fields, without money or influence, with little formal education, Chávez took on a personal crusade that seemed totally quixotic, a foregone failure. He would attempt to organize a movement of farm workers, of the campesinos, among whom he grew up.
With little more than grit and uncommon instincts of leadership, Chávez took on a fight against powerful forces of American agribusiness and formidable political enemies. With the help of allies such as Dolores Huerta, he made possible what seemed to most observers a fanciful dream—the United Farm Workers (UFW).
"La Causa," or "The Cause," was never a typical union. It was a movement for dignity as well as higher pay; it was for Latino self-identity as well as for bargaining rights. It had a profound national impact. The sparks of protest lit by Chávez in the tiny town of Delano, California, showed to the world the exploitation of thousands of Americans and the need for social justice.
He attracted to his side extraordinary individuals willing to sacrifice and dedicate themselves to the movement. With few resources, they carried on strikes and national boycotts, won contracts with growers, battled relentlessly against the Teamsters Union and others who resented the audacity and then their success. They influenced legislation, registered people to vote, and changed political dynamics.
In the rise of the farm workers movement, Chávez, Huerta, and the other leaders melded strong passion, commitment, and belief from various elements: religious heritage anchored in Christian social justice; aggressive, nonviolent protest principles exemplified in the civil rights movement and in the teachings of Gandhi; and the community organizing skills developed by Saul Alinsky, Fred Ross and other leaders of organizations fighting for equal rights and justice for the workers and others left on the outside of the American Dream.
The UFW also contributed to a more general movement for civil rights among Mexican Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. It helped inspire a new generation of Mexican American youths to organize their communities and become active in social and political programs. As the movement grew, the picture of Chávez became, along with others, one that hung in the homes of Latinos.
What the UFW accomplished will never be forgotten by the workers themselves or by the thousands of social activists who have been inspired and energized by the farm workers' struggle. Chávez’s movement, with its energy and appeal to the religious and cultural heritage of Mexican Americans, had lit a spark in the harvest fields that consumed old notions that life could not improve, that the system holding down the workers was too intractable and too powerful that it could be changed.
The UFW did not ultimately become a successful labor union, as the revisionists have shown. Yet, the movement stirred passions and commitments to action for countless Latinos, passions that continued to resonate long after his death. People who had shared common humiliations and shattered pride now fought back. People who had never before considered joining social movements now became activists. La Causa had never been simply an effort to found a union; it had been a battle for self-respect—standing up, at last, against a system that destroyed dignity. Not only for farm workers but for other Mexican Americans, the movement became an exciting struggle. People for the first time in their lives joined picket lines in front of grocery stores, passed out leaflets, registered others to vote, sang the songs and chants of protest, and gained a new awareness that they could actually make a difference. La Causa was a fight for empowerment and self-determination.
Chávez said that history would be on the side of the workers, especially the Mexican Americans who were taking their proper place in American society, despite the formidable opposition they faced. In those towns such as Salinas, Delano, Fresno, Bakersfield and Modesto, those towns that had been battlegrounds of the farm workers, it would be the children and grandchildren of those workers who would, in the end, gain justice. Sí, se puede!
Learn more about César Chávez by reading this month's Feature Story, "Celebrating Cesar Chavez Day," on the Latino American Experience. The database also features a primary source collection that includes the complete set of files from the FBI's surveillance of the labor leader, as well as a wide selection of documents, photos, and video clips related to the broader farmworker movement . If you are not already a subscriber, click here for a free trial.