Monday, March 31st is César Chávez Day in ten U.S. states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Mississippi, Michigan, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. Many claim that the holiday should be extended to all U.S. states, making César Chávez Day an official holiday nationwide.
Cesario (“César”) Estrada Chávez was born to a family of poor migrant workers in 1927 near Yuma, Arizona and died on April 23, 1993 in a village near the same area. He was known for fighting for the rights of Mexican-American immigrants, particularly those of farm workers. At that time, farm workers were often paid scant wages, lacked employee health insurance, and were prohibited from taking breaks even to using the restroom or finding shade to escape the sun while on the job.
In 1948 Chávez married Helen Fabela and moved to Delano, California, where they started a family. Profoundly influenced by his readings of Gandhi and St. Francis, Chávez became fascinated with the idea of using nonviolent strikes in order to improve the working conditions of farm workers. In 1962 Chávez along with Mexican-American rights advocate Dolores Huerta, founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in order to organize agricultural workers, many of whom were Mexican-American, and fight for improvements in wages and working conditions. The association later became United Farm Workers, or UFW, as it is known today. In the 1960s, the NFWA, along with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), participated in the Delano grape strike in Delano, CA a strike that lasted five years and involved non-violent methods such as picketing, boycotting, and marches. The strike ended in 1970, when an historic agreement was reached between UFW and the owners of the grape field.
Chávez also participated in several hunger strikes in order to raise awareness of the plight of the farm workers, and it is suspected that one of these strikes led to the death of the labor leader in 1993. Today, he is considered one of the most important U.S. Latino leaders in history.
To honor the activist’s legacy, many schools, streets, and public parks, especially in the Southwest, bear his name. In California, César Chávez Day is officially promoted as a day of community service. Schools and government offices close. Many cities will hold parades and festivals in his honor.
To add to the festivities, this year, César Chávez, a new film on Chávez’s life will be released on March 28th. The film, directed by Diego Luna and starring Michael Peña and América Ferrera, is the first feature film about the labor activist. The film highlights Chávez’s organization efforts, his life and personality. On seeing the film, President Barack Obama commented on how we are all called to carry on Chávez’s legacy: “This movie, this film tells the story of a man guided by an enormous faith — faith in a righteous cause and a loving God, and the dignity of every human being. And it reminds us how throughout our history that faith has been tested, and that it falls to ordinary Americans, ordinary people, to fight and restore that faith.”
A petition has also been set up by supporters of Chávez’s cause to encourage President Barack Obama to make César Chávez Day a federal holiday and a day of service learning in U.S. schools.
By Amber Workman
Change.org (Petition to make César Chávez Day a national holiday)
United Farm Workers