Facts About Cesar Chavez: Twentieth Century Champion of American Farm Workers

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The Statue of Liberty, the gateway to the United States of America, commemorates the US Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776. The declaration recognizes that all men are created equal and that all people have been endowed with the unalienable Right to Life Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Upholding these proud ideals is not an easy task. Those citizens of this great country, who were born less equal than others, have had to struggle long and hard to claim these Rights.

In the first half of the 20th century, the farm workers of USA were an exploited lot. They worked long hours, at backbreaking work and received a pittance in wages. They lived in appalling conditions sans electricity, sanitation, health care and educational facilities. Cesar Chavez a farm labourer became the voice of these people and succeeded in securing for them improved working conditions, better wages, reduced working hours and a better standard of living.

Cesar Chavez was born on 31 March 1927, in Yuma, Arizona. His family lost their homestead during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. They were forced to move to California and live the life of migrant farm labourers. Cesar schooled wherever his family found work. This involved shifting schools again and again. After finishing grade eight, he quit and joined in the family effort to keep body and soul together. In 1945, he was recruited into the Navy and spent the next 2 years seeing the world.

On his return to USA, he became a grass roots organizer and soon started the National Farm Workers Association that is known today as the United Farm Workers. The agricultural industrialists of California were very powerful and standing up to them was not an easy task.

Cesar insisted on non-violence no matter what the provocation. Negotiation, fasts, rallies, demonstrations and marches were his weapons. Realizing that the voice of the farm workers in rural areas would be drowned out by the powers that controlled the resources, he took his movement to the cities where the demands of the farm workers were heard and championed by many.

Cesar Chavez demanded better pay, working conditions and hours of work. He fought for good housing conditions, health and educational facilities for the farm workers, but most importantly he fought for their right to unionize, organize and affiliate.

He led a boycott of the Californian table grape growers. The battle limped on and on, but eventually Cesar’s gentlemanly, peaceful but determined tactics wore down this powerful group and they gave in gracefully.

Cesar Chavez was a champion of universal social justice. He lent his support and leadership to other causes as well. In the 60’s he spoke out against the Vietnam War and some years later he campaigned actively for Gay Rights, winning him a few enemies among his own followers.

Cesar Chavez dedicated himself whole heartedly to the causes he advocated. His fasts sometimes lasted over 30 days. These hardships probably played a part in his untimely death. He died peacefully in his sleep on April 23, 1993. He was 66 years old.

Cesar Chavez is survived by his wife Helen, eight children and thirty one grandchildren. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Honour.

The slogan of his followers was ‘Viva la Cousa’but such was the charisma of the man that it soon became ‘Viva Chavez’.

His compassion and dedication made him a much loved figure among those he worked for as well as those whose mind sets he sought to change. When asked why the people loved him so much, he replied after some consideration, ‘the feeling is mutual’.

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