Remembering César Chávez’s legacy on his birthday

James C. Harrington

Today is the birthday of César Chávez, the farm labor leader who dedicated his life to improving the wages and working conditions of agricultural workers, one of the country’s poorest and most exploited groups of laborers. Texas provides a large share of these workers.

Not only did Chávez lead the historic non-violent movement for farm worker rights, but he inspired thousands, many of whom never worked in agriculture, to commit themselves to social, economic and environmental justice and civil rights in their own communities.

Chávez’s impact is reflected in the holiday designated for him in 11 states and in the parks, cultural centers, libraries, schools and streets that carry his name in cities across Texas and the United States. There’s even a statue of him on the West Mall. In Texas, March 31 is an optional state holiday that many community-based organizations celebrate.

Chávez knew well the hard life of farm laborers. He had to leave school after eighth grade to work in the fields as a migrant to support his family. Although he had a limited formal education, Chávez had impressive intellectual curiosity, read widely throughout his life and constantly educated himself.

After returning from the U.S. Navy, Chávez coordinated voter registration drives and campaigns against racial and economic discrimination, but he really wanted to build an organization to protect and serve farm workers, whose lives he had shared since a young age. So in 1962, he helped found the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America.

Chávez led the first successful farm workers union in U.S. history. The union helped attain dignity, respect, fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits, humane working conditions and other protections for hundreds of thousands of farm laborers and won the first industrywide labor contract in American agriculture.

Chávez believed in and used the peaceful tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: fasts, boycotts, strikes and pilgrimages. People felt his love and, in turn, showed him theirs. I saw this over and over in my work with him. When he died in 1993 at age 66, more than 50,000 people of all walks of life marched in his funeral procession under the hot sun in Delano, California.

Chávez’s impact on Texans extends far beyond the thousands of Texas farm laborers who worked as migrants in California. His efforts to open the doors of colleges and universities to the Hispanic community reached deep into Texas and opened to doors to economic and political opportunity.

Chávez’s life was not limited to a single cause or struggle. He was a unique leader who inspired individuals to work for social justice and civil rights for poor people. He did this through forging a national coalition of students, middle-class consumers, trade unionists, religious groups and minorities, both here in Texas and throughout the nation.

We do not measure Chávez’s life in material terms. He never owned a house or earned more than $6,000 a year. Rather, we measure his life as a person who stood, and worked, for equality, justice and dignity for all Americans and who inspired thousands of others to do the same.

We celebrate Chávez’s birthday, not just to honor him, but as a day on which to recommit ourselves to the struggle to make our community, our state and our country a better place for our children and grandchildren.