In 2014, President Barack Obama declared Cesar Chavez’s birthday, March 31, to be an official commemorative holiday, currently observed in eight states including California, where state offices and schools are closed for the day.
In his proclamation, Obama called Chavez “one of America’s greatest champions for social justice” and asked Americans to honor him by “meeting our obligations to one another . . . Let us remember that when we lift each other up, when we speak with one voice, we have the power to build a better world.”
Chavez and Dolores Huerta founded the United Farm Workers union, organizing and participating in strikes for better wages and working conditions for farmworkers. Their methods were based on principles of nonviolence.
El Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez worked closely with Chavez starting in 1965, organizing theatrical performances to both entertain the workers and educate them on social and political issues that impacted their lives.
“Before Cesar came along, there was no protection whatsoever for farmworkers,” Valdez said. “There had been several attempts before him to gain rights for the workers but they had not been successful. When the Delano Grape Strike happened in 1965, the country was in the right frame of mind and the workers got a lot more support from the press and public.”
Teatro member and activist Phil Esparza remembers Chavez as a cultural icon.
“He lived what he preached in a nonviolent effort to create social change, justice, and equity for farmers,” Esparza said. “He was the first successful organizing drive in the history of farm labor. He set the mark for what was needed, like better conditions in the fields and fresh drinking water. Without him, I don’t know where we would be. And the struggle continues—we still need to finish the job he started.”
Esparza is a BenitoLink board member.
Activist Richard Perez agreed that conditions for workers before Chavez were “horrendous.”
“They didn’t have bathrooms,” he said. “They didn’t have a way of doing their work that was efficient. And the work was tedious and there were a lot of chemicals and pesticides they had to deal with that caused a lot of sicknesses. Cesar led the fight against the big agricultural interests to get farmworker rights established in a union. If they wanted to be in a union, they could do that without fear of retaliation—that was established as a right through Cesar Chavez.”
Today, Perez said, the fight continues as farmworkers remain among the lowest-paid laborers in the United States
“The average pay is $14 a day, which is below the poverty level,” he said. “They are still fighting for housing, education, health care—even during the pandemic, we had a problem with the Department of Health and Human Services providing interpreters for the vaccine. Language should not be a barrier in providing care like that.”
Valdez said that Chavez should be remembered for his drive for social justice for farmworkers.
“What made him different was his dogged pursuit for the rights of others and his willingness to sacrifice himself,” he said. “He wasn’t doing it for money or for fame—he wasn’t doing this for his ego. He could be cautious and negative at times, but he would tell us, ‘As long as you don’t give up, you don’t lose.’”
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