Cesar Chavez: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

Cesar Chavez was a prominent civil rights leader for migrant workers in the United States. Learn how this legendary leader used nonviolent methods to accomplish his goals.

Chavez's Legacy

Cesar Chavez led the United Farm Workers from the organization's inception to its national prominence. His passion for migrants' civil rights started early in life. Chavez's motto was 'Si, se puede,' which means 'Yes, it can be done.' That was the way he lived his life. The secret to his success included studying great nonviolent leaders, following their principles, and paying strict attention to detail. Chavez believed that securing the rights of migrant workers was vital, but not at the expense of using violence or losing workers' dignity.

Early Problems for Chavez and His Family

Cesar Estrada Chavez was born on March 31, 1927 near Yuma, Arizona. He was the son of Librado and Juana Chavez. Cesar Chavez was named in honor of his grandfather, Cesario. For Cesar Chavez, firsthand experience of injustice toward migrant workers came at a very early age in what was called the Forty Acres. In the deal involving the Forty Acres, his father agreed to clear eighty acres of land for which he would receive forty of them. Shortly after clearing the land his father learned the land had been sold. Librado Chavez went to a lawyer and was advised to take out a loan to buy the land. He took out a loan, but when he couldn't pay the interest, the lawyer purchased the land. The lawyer then sold it to the man who owned it in the first place.

Cesar Chavez and his family moved back and forth from Arizona to California. They finally settled in Sal Si Puedes, which means 'escape if you can.' Sal Si Puedes is a poor barrio (neighborhood) in San Jose. School was difficult and a terrible experience for Chavez. He spoke Spanish at home but the teachers taught only in English. He was not permitted to speak Spanish in school. Throughout his education, Chavez attended thirty-seven schools. He attended an integrated school with signs in the school that read 'For Whites Only.' In this case, the signs concerned seating in the cafeteria. Being 'integrated' did not mean the schools were equal for Hispanics.

Chavez wondered what he was doing in school. He believed school had little to do with migrant farming. He graduated the eighth grade in 1942. It was the end of his formal education. He wanted to keep his mother from working in the fields, which meant he had to go to work.

Cesar Chavez
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Foundation of the Movement

At the age of nineteen Chavez joined the Navy. He served two years in a segregated unit. In 1948 he married Helen Fabela and the couple settled in Delano, California. They had eight children. Although he had only an eighth grade education, Chavez loved to read and learn. He met with Father McDonnell, a priest who came to Sal Si Puedes to start a church for migrant workers. Father McDonnell taught Chavez about nonviolent leaders. Chavez began reading books about nonviolent leaders such as Gandhi and St. Francis.

Chavez also met with Fred Ross, a community organizer. They discussed the rights of migrant workers and Fred Ross became Chavez's mentor. Ross and Chavez developed the Community Service Organization. As a leader of this organization, Chavez believed, 'Being of service is not enough. You must become a servant of the people. When you do, you can demand their commitment in return.' That is exactly what he did.

United Farm Workers Established

In 1962 the United Farm Workers--formerly the National Farm Workers Association--was formed. Chavez and his brother Richard designed the flag colors, which were red and white. They chose the eagle as its symbol. The eagle design was simple with squared-off wings. They wanted to keep it simple so workers could make their own red and white flags. Chavez was convinced the eagle gave courage to the workers and the organization because it had done so for the Aztecs. He said of the eagle, 'When people see it they know it means dignity.'

United Farm Workers Flag
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In the early years the United Farm Workers Union struggled. Funding was an expected problem for this poor socio-economic group. A small breakthrough happened in 1970 when the grape growers accepted a union contract. This was a result of almost a decade of nonviolent actions and protests by the United Farm Workers. The union gained a great deal of support and compassion from Californians and outsiders during their three-hundred-and-forty-mile march from Delano to Sacramento. Almost all of the protests, picketing, and strikes were nonviolent.

Role Models and the Policy of Nonviolence

Nonviolent Grape Strike
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Chavez wanted to grow as a person during his adult life. He read a great deal and had hundreds of books on a wide variety of topics at his office in La Paz. He held the leadership qualities of Gandhi and John F. Kennedy in high regard.

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