César Chávez


How do you face an uphill battle with no guarantee of a successful outcome and no real end in sight?

César Chávez stayed committed, passionate, and strong.

César Chávez knew misery from as far back as he could remember. During the Great Depression, his family lost their Arizona ranch and grocery store and, to make ends meet, had no choice but to join the mass migration to California to pick produce. It was year-round, backbreaking work: cherries and beans in spring; corn and grapes in summer; cotton in fall; peas and lettuce in winter. They were always on the move, rarely clean, and forever hungry. 

This was the life of a migrant worker, irrespective of age. César and his five siblings worked alongside their parents for whom the American Dream remained elusive. School was a luxury they could rarely access and ill afford. By the age of 15, in 1942, César had dropped out for good, never to return.

After a decade in the fields, however, he'd had enough. He ditched his pickers bag and joined the Latino civil rights group, the Community Service Organization (CSO), where he discovered natural talents as both speaker and organizer. He traveled throughout California, speaking out for the right to fair wages and working conditions for the largely invisible migrant population.

Dolores Huerta under an illustration of Chávez at the César Chávez Memorial Auditorium. Photo by the US Department of Labor.

Dolores Huerta under an illustration of Chávez at the César Chávez Memorial Auditorium. Photo by the US Department of Labor.


Over the course of the next four decades, Chávez successfully coordinated labor movements, protest marches, boycotts, and hunger strikes -- all to bring attention to the plight of migrant and farm workers. In 1962, for example, he teamed up with activists Dolores Huerta and Philip Vera Cruz to found the National Farm Workers' Association. This would later become the United Farm Workers, a labor union representing farmworkers in the United States. The organization was widely regarded as a triumph. After years of courting alliances with other organized labor movements, organizing protest marches, and spearheading boycotts of brands supporting unfair employment practices -- not to mention a 25-day hunger strike on the part of Chávez -- 26 growers in Delano, CA, were the first to agree to the fairer treatment of migrant workers. The first contracts were signed in 1970.

The next milestone brought Chavez into the political arena with the 1975 legislative enactment in California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Though the law allowed migrant workers to bargain collectively, it turned out to be insufficient in ensuring fair wages. So Chávez picked up the struggle again. 

Despite opposition from such powerhouses as the Teamsters Union and the US Government, Chavez would go on fighting for the rights of migrant workers until his death, in 1993. By that time, he had changed the lives of millions of the most disadvantaged US workers, for the better. 

Chavez received numerous accolades for his lifetime commitment to justice, including the Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged and, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. He was also a three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. More recently, President Obama's 2008 campaign slogan "Yes We Can" was a nod to Chávez's popular Spanish equivalent "Sí, se puede." To this day, Chavez is considered a hero in Latin American communities for his dogged determination to secure basic human rights for those who had no political voice.

César Chávez spent his whole life fighting an uphill battle on behalf the least fortunate. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Sarah Van Cleave for bringing him to our attention.

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