Cesar‘s family sought to make its fortune in the Golden State, and in 1939 they moved to San Jose, California. Work was hard and scarce, forcing the family to labor in the fields around Atascadero, Gonzales, King City, Delano, and Selma as migrant farm workers. The 12-year old Cesar soon found the odds stacked against him when he attended California schools where his native tongue, Spanish, was not spoken. Additionally, his difficulties compounded when he had to change schools time and again in an era of “whites only” signs on the doors and water fountains. He quit school in 1942 after barely finishing eighth grade, taking on the lifestyle of a full-time migrant farm worker. This life was full of prejudice, racism, disadvantage, and outright animosity toward him and his colleagues.
In 1946 Cesar enlisted in the U.S. Navy, served two years in the Western Pacific during the aftermath of World War II, and then went back to his regular life. In the meantime he met, and in 1948 married, Helen Fabela. The two packed up and moved to Delano to settle down. Ordinarily one might now expect the story to continue in line with the elder Chavez’ life, but Cesar refused to let injustice stand unchallenged, and his name became soon known when in 1952 he joined up with the Latin civil rights group named Community Service Organization.
During his tenure with this organization, Cesar Chavez fought to counteract racism and financial injustices. Through iron determination he later founded the National Farm Workers Association (also known as United Farm Workers of America) in 1962.
In spite of financial setbacks, Mr. Chavez kept the union going, and by 1970 he was able to get union contracts accepted by local grape growers. Relying heavily on non-violent methodology, and instead giving power to the people (as could be seen in the Delano Grape Strike) to stand up for themselves, he was able to direct the population’s attention to the suffering the farm workers endured for the sake of the little monies they were paid. What wagging tongues considered a publicity stunt, propelled him into the limelight in 1968, when he staged a 25-day water only fast to bring attention to the dismal working conditions farm workers faced.
Because of his tireless efforts, farm workers were able to share in the profits of their labors on a more equitable basis, and soon fairer wages, medical coverage, and even pensions were among the benefits they could enjoy.
Sadly at age 66, on April 23, 1993, Cesar Chavez died. Nonetheless, thanks to the impact his life and struggles had on his immediate family and also his friends, his legacy lives on in the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation which was established in 1993. One year later his memory was honored with the posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Mrs. Chavez accepted from President Clinton.
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