5 Fascinating Facts You Need to Know About Cesar Chavez

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1939 was a pivotal year for literature, politics, and human rights. It was the year John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, detailing the plight of migrant laborers in California.

That same year, a 12-year-old boy and his family were coming into California to work under those same conditions. That boy’s name was Cesar Chavez, and he would become one of the greatest human rights activists in American history.

Unfortunately, despite everything he did to help farmers, he’s still not covered extensively in most schools. The result is that many of us don’t know much about him, and we should.

We’ll discuss various facts about him in the paragraphs below.

  1. His Birth

Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927. His first home was made of adobe and had been built by his grandfather.

The Chavez family also owned their own farm, but that ended during the Depression. Over a quarter of the workforce was unemployed at some point during the Great Depression.

Hundreds of thousands of families lost their homes, and the Chavez’s were among them.

  1. Lived in California

His family moved to California in 1939 and began working as migrant farmers at various farms in California. They settled in a town called ‘Salsipuedes,’ which literally translates to “escape if you can.”

That sentiment, unfortunately, described the conditions Chavez experienced as a migrant worker. Migrant workers were paid very little, despite the intensity of their work, and had long shifts of up to eighteen hours. Among workers were children, who often missed school to work.

Many of them lived in migrant camps, which often weren’t much different from being homeless. Their employers were often corrupt and prejudiced, referring to the migrants as “Okies” and other derogatory terms.

The term derived from Oklahoma, the home state of about 1/5th of the migrants. Many were from other states, and some were immigrants from Mexico or the Philippines.

  1. Delano Grape Strike

Chavez was deeply affected by his experiences as a migrant worker, but it was years before he could channel it into protest. His first exposure to activism came in 1952 when he met Father McDonnel, a priest who fought for oppressed groups on behalf of his faith, and Fred Ross, a union organizer who worked with the Community Service Organization.

Chavez was with the CSO for a decade, eventually becoming the leader of the nationwide group. However, he left in 1962 to pursue his own activism. His first major protest occurred in 1965.

Chavez and a small group of farmers ventured to Sacramento, the state capital, to protest the working conditions of migrant workers in Delano, California. The protest had been started by Filipino workers, and Chavez quickly joined in with his own labor organization.

They walked a distance of over 300 miles, which took weeks on foot. His protest attracted a lot of attention, so much so that several thousand had joined by the time they reached the capitol.

The massive support garnered by the Delano Grape Strike pushed some farmers to sign contracts with the workers, granting them more rights and better working conditions. However, not all farmers gave in, and the whole protest lasted five years.

  1. Chavez and Kennedy

A few years before the Delano Grape Strike, Chavez was offered a job with the Peace Corps. He would be leading operations for a portion of Latin America. He turned down the offer so he could continue fighting for the rights of farmworkers.

Chavez had already been working extensively with Hispanic Americans before then, which may have been why Kennedy felt he was the right person for the job. Most of his experience up to that point had been in groups that consisted mostly of Hispanic Americans.

  1. Advocated Non-Violence

Inspired by other, similar leaders, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez advocated for non-violence as a path to reform. He called on students, intellectuals, and spiritual leaders to aid in his cause.

Unfortunately, his non-violent philosophy was threatened on several occasions. One of the first instances came in 1968, when members of the United Farm Workers, Chavez’s own union, began arguing for violence as a way to make progress.

Cesar Chavez responded by going on a hunger strike. It lasted for nearly a month before the advocates backed down and agreed to embrace non-violence again.

When not on a hunger strike, Chavez was a vegetarian. He recalls, “I became a vegetarian after realizing that animals feel afraid, cold, hungry, and unhappy like we do. I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom.”

Another of the many inspiring Cesar Chavez quotes is his personal motto, “Si, Se Puede.” This was later translated into English and used as the slogan for a former president. It roughly translates to “Yes, we can.”

He’d lead many more protests and even go on another hunger strike, longer than his first, to protest pesticides and the effect they were having on people and wildlife alike. This fast occurred in 1988 when Chavez was 61.

He died in his sleep in 1993 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Finding More Fascinating Facts About Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez was truly one of the great heroes of our time. He led the fight for the rights of migrant farmworkers and greatly improved their way of life.

We’ve shared some of our favorite facts about Cesar Chavez in this article, but a single article isn’t enough to cover a lifetime, especially not such an eventful life. We encourage you to do more research on your own if you’re interested.

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