Although Cesar Chavez had humble beginnings, he later rose to lead one of the most powerful unions in the country, the National Farm Workers Association. It is without question that the most powerful attribute of Cesar Chavez was his humility. Future generations will know of his success in ensuring that corporations enter contractual agreements that were fundamentally fair to farmworkers. Thus, we must make sure they also remember the simple man who captured the attention of national leaders with only his humility and led a movement that changed the national conscience forever.
Cesar was born on March 31, 1927 and worked in the migrant fields of California that extended from Brawley to Oxnard, Atascadero, Gonzales, King City, Salinas, McFarland, Delano, Wasco, Selma, Kingsburg, and Mendota. Later, after serving two years in the Navy, he married Helen Fabela. Together they had 8 children and 31 grandchildren.
At an early age, Cesar experienced poverty. After his father became ill, not wanting his mother to work in the fields, Cesar left school shortly after graduating from the 8th grade. He began to work in the fields full-time. Cesar quickly understood that farm workers did not have access to humane working conditions or fair wages. When his family's land was later lost due to deceptive dealings, Cesar understood justice was not easily served either. Later in life, he said, "The love for justice that is in us is not only the best part of our being, but it is also the most true to our nature."
Cesar's limited education did not interfere with his quest for knowledge as he clearly understood that there was power in education. Cesar and his wife, Helen, taught Mexican immigrants to read and organized voter registration drives for new US citizens. Cesar studied the philosophical writings of St. Francis of Assisi and Mahatma Gandhi and adopted their teachings of peaceful resolutions to conflict.
In 1962, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla founded the first successful farm workers' union in American history, The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Cesar led the union in historic nonviolent protests and dedicated himself to building a movement of poor working people that extended beyond the fields and into the cities and towns across the nation. For countless farm workers, Cesar Chavez' efforts were critical in securing fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits and humane living and working conditions. From 1964 to 1980, wages of California migrant workers increased 70 percent, health care benefits became a reality and a formal grievance procedure was established. Approximately 7,000 farm workers joined the national boycott and succeeded in securing the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) of the AFL-CIO to act as their bargaining representative.
Although we have made strides in the right direction, today the Latino community is adversely affected by anti-immigration legislation, education cuts, baseless voter ID laws, and redistricting proposals focused on diluting the Latino voter strength. Hispanics that now make up over 54 million people in the United States and Puerto Rico are a diverse Latino community. We have roots in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and throughout South and Central America. We are diverse ethnically, socio- economically, and also by our faith. We are business owners, labor advocates, educators and public officials. We are also the immigrant farm workers who pick our food, build our homes, and care for our children. Most significantly however, we share the same concerns and hopes as most American families. We care about our children's education, the state of the economy, healthcare costs, and the civil rights of all Americans. Although the immigration system may be broken, the Latino community is not!
Today, LULAC is spearheading initiatives that carry on the work began by Cesar Chavez. Along with labor and civil rights partners, we launched Movimiento Hispano, an initiative to register over 200,000 Hispanics to vote. Our Democracy can only be strong if we ensure that all eligible Americans register and participate. Together we will ensure that the fastest growing population doesn't get left behind by lack of access or opportunity gaps.
The greatness of Cesar Chavez cannot be simply summarized. It is without question that his sacrifices and contributions enriched the fiber of this country. I cannot really add to the countless accolades that have been paid to Cesar Chavez throughout the years. But, as president of this nation's largest and oldest civil rights organization, I can pay tribute to a man who defied expectations and worked tenaciously to realize the American dream for so many. He not only inspired farm workers, he moved the conscience of millions to commit to social change by calling on their humanity. Cesar Chavez died on April 22, 1993 but, as community leaders, we must continue his work and bring justice and dignity to include the countless numbers of others who are being exploited. Extremists who have discounted the Latino vote to win favor with their base will feel the backlash of their actions in the ballot boxes this year and understand that the memory of Latino communities is not the "Etch-a-Sketch" they hope for.