“Si, se puede.” Yes, it can be done. The slogan for activist and organizer César Chávez, has been a rallying point for workers involved in the farm labor movement in the U.S.
César Chávez was born on March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona. During his childhood, the family home was lost because his father couldn’t afford the interest on the home mortgage. The Chávez family moved to California to work as migrant farm laborers harvesting peas, lettuce, cherries, beans, corn, grapes, and cotton. César dropped out of school after attending the eighth grade in order to become a full-time worker to support the family.
In 1944, the 17 year old joined the U.S. Navy for a two year stint. He found out that Mexican-Americans were only allowed to work as deckhands and painters. He described the two years as the worst years of his life. After returning home from the Navy, he married Helen Fabela and set up housekeeping in San Jose, California. The couple had seven children.
Chávez labored in the fields until he was hired as an organizer for the Community Service Organization in 1952. He organized against police brutality, voter registration and workers’ rights. Chávez was named the CSO national director in 1958.
Chávez left the CSO in 1962 to co-found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Dolores Huerta, later the name was changed to the United Farm Workers (UFW). The Delano grape strike for higher wages was initiated by Filipino-American pickers in September of 1965. The UFW and Chávez led the historic farmworkers march to Sacramento in solidarity. The famous grape boycott was encouraged to support the efforts of the strikers. Many consumers boycotted table grapes for five years. During this strike, U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare’s Migratory Labor subcommittee member Robert Kennedy expressed his support to the workers.
During the early 1970s Chávez and the UFW organized further strikes and boycotts. The largest farm labor strike in American history was the Salad Bowl Strike for grape and lettuce workers. The win led to passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. In the 1980s, Chávez led yet another grape boycott. This time to protest the use of dangerous pesticides on grapes.
Chávez not only spoke out publicly about his deep concerns, his dietary practices were an extention of his conscience. He chose the vegan lifestyle because he felt compassion for animals. Chávez also believed that veganism was the best prescription for excellent health.
Chávez practiced spiritual fasts as a means to spiritual transformation. In 1968, he undertook a 25 day fast for nonviolence. Two years later, he fasted for thanksgiving and hope in preparation of a farm worker action. In 1972, the state of Arizona prohibitted boycotts and strikes by farm workers during harvest seasons. Chávez fasted to protest the law. Chávez said his fasting was influenced by his religious tradition of penance and Mahatma Gandhi’s fasts and promotion of nonviolence.
Today is César Chávez Day in parts of the United States. The event is an official state holiday in California and an optional holiday in Colorado and Texas. There are popular celebrations in honor of César Chávez in Arizona, Michigan, New Mexico, and here in Nebraska. Some other states may also support César Chávez Day activities.
Community leaders address values that Chávez promoted. The issues remain quite relevant to us today. Think of the current problems in retaining fair wages, workplace fairness, medical coverage and pension benefits. If he were still alive today, it’s likely that César Chávez would be intimately involved in these issues.
The Blue Jay of Happiness honors César Chávez’s commitment to social justice and deep respect for human dignity.