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15 Ways Labor Leader and Civil Rights Activist Cesar Chavez Fought for Justice

Cesar Chavez Day is on March 31, on what would have been the civil rights leader’s 93rd birthday. Each year (and hopefully more often than that), we are called to remember the iconic man and his legendary contributions to farmworkers’ rights, environmental issues, and more. The aftereffects of Chavez’s work are still felt by many in the community today. Most of us know the things Chavez has accomplished, but don’t realize how connected he is to the strides being made in 2019.

Because he deserves that we delve a little deeper into his accomplishments, here we take a closer look at what Cesar Chavez achieved. We analyze how these achievements and accomplishments made it possible for further successes to occur in the years since. Because you can’t know where you are going as a people — and really appreciate the opportunity — if you don’t first understand how you were able to get there in the first place.

National Farm Workers Association/United Farm Workers (UFW)

When Chicanos Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta saw that farmworkers weren’t getting fair treatment and access to resources, they decided to take action. Huerta had co-created the Stockon chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO, which Cesar Chavez was involved with), and in 1960, the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA). She joined forces with Cesar Chavez to form the National Farm Workers Association, which would merge with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (led by Larry Itliong) to become the United Farmers of America (UWA).

This labor union organized strikes during the ’60s and ’70s, which led to increased wages for workers, contracts between growers and farmworkers, and union representation elections. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, along with their Filipino counterparts (Larry Itiliong, Pete Velasco, Philip Vera Cruz, etc.) served as inspiration for POC decades after, proving that “minorities” can unite, organize, and demand equality in all aspects of life, and in all jobs. Their mission was to show that all Americans deserve justice and fair treatment, not just the wealthy, the ones in power, and the “majority.”

Chicano Studies

Because of the Chicano Movement, of which Cesar Chavez was a part of, we now have Chicano Studies taught at many different universities and colleges. Chicano Studies allows Mexican-Americans to finally learn about their history, culture, and achievements and accomplishments. In traditional history classes in the United States, the focus has always been on Europeans and their successes (which historically, usually have been at the expense of people of color). When do you ever hear about American Indian history, Latinx and Chicanx history, or any of the narratives of Asians, Africans, and other groups that are not of European background (especially in grade schools and high schools)? Chicano Studies opened the door for other POC studies to be feasible as part of education in America.

Community Service

Cesar Chavez was trained by the Community Service Organization (CSO) and dedicated his life to serving his community. With his work, Cesar Chavez encouraged generations since to think outside of themselves and give back to their communities and those who live in it. To find issues that need to be highlighted, address them, and organize a plan of action. To see how you can change the injustices in the world, step by step, and in the process, encourage others to do the same. You can’t complain about what’s wrong with the world and then do nothing about it. Cesar Chavez called it out and changed it.

MEChA

The Chicano Movement helped create another resource that continues to benefit and aid Chicanx college students to this day. MEChA, which stands with Movimiento Estudantil Chicanx de Atzlan, originated in 1969 in Santa Barbara. Today, there are over 500 MEChA chapters (as of 2012). When UCLA announced, on the eve of Cesar Chavez’s funeral (in 1993), that it refused to establish a Chicano Studies program at the university, a riot ensued. MEChA peacefully demonstrated, and participated in a hunger strike for 14 days, leading to the establishment of the Cesar Chavez Center. Celebrating Chicanx history, demanding equal treatment and access, and peacefully demonstrating, with a hunger strike, are all things that trickled down from Cesar Chavez’s own practices for change.

Credit Unions for Farmworkers

Photo: CREDIT UNION 1967 / EL MALCRIADO ARTICLE/The Library, University of California San Diego

Cesar Chavez founded the Farm Workers Credit Union in 1963. It gave people more control over their money. It also allowed people to borrow money without being preyed on. The credit union’s loans only charged 1% interest, and there were no late fees. It was designed to benefit the farmworkers, instead of taking advantage of them and their financial situation(s). It gave Latinxs more power, and unity over their circumstances, instead of allowing those with more power to put them into more debt. “Cesar would tell workers their money deposited in banks was being used by the growers to pay them the cheap wages they received.”

First Health Insurance for Farmworkers

Photo: UKBestPapers

In addition to a credit union, Cesar Chavez founded the first health insurance for farmworkers. The Robert F. Kennedy Farm Workers Medical Plan provides “vital health services for farmworkers and their families. Its first benefit check was issued on September 1, 1969, for $300. It allowed a farmworker from California’s Mt. LaSalle Vineyards to pay some of the expenses related to the birth of his daughter. Five years later, the medical plan wrote over 40,000 checks, at over $3.5 million in benefits. More recently, the Robert F. Kennedy Farm Workers Medical Plan is said to have paid out over $250 million in benefits to farmworkers and their families — thanks to Cesar Chavez.

National Farm Workers Service Center/Cesar Chavez Foundation

In 1966, Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Service Center (now the Cesar Chavez Foundation). The center’s initial aim was to build affordable housing for displaced and elderly Filipino farmworkers. In 1974, the first affordable housing property was built. The foundation continued to benefit the people (and still does). In 1983/1984 (when the license was given), the first of 11 radio stations was established to provide both education and entertainment. Today, the foundation runs the Cesar Chavez Center, and has funds for Housing & Economic Development, Education, and Communications.

Affordable Housing

Cesar Chavez believed in providing for farmworkers and seeing that their everyday needs were met. That they had money in the bank, medical care, and affordable housing. He built affordable housing for the elderly Filipino-American farmworkers so that they were provided for (and that effort continues through the Cesar Chavez Foundation). Today, people in San Francisco are taking a page from Cesar’s book, demanding that those who aren’t rich can have access to housing in a moment where the wealthy are driving up housing prices and displacing natives — including the elderly.

KUFW, La Campesina Radio Station

Photo: By Source (WP:NFCC#4)/Wikipedia

In 1983, Cesar Chavez created the first of 11 radio stations which served the farmworker community. KUFW, 90.5 FM La Campesina, is heard in the Visalia metropolitan area of California. The stations play Regional Mexican music, along with providing “educational programming.” KUFW was the very first radio station in the country “dedicated to the needs of farmworkers.”

Latinos in Leadership

By Cesar Chavez taking the initiative to speak up for the rights of farmworkers, he gave Latinxs everywhere the right to do the same. He and Dolores Huerta serve to this day as inspiration and prove “si se puede.” We don’t have to stay silent and accept poor treatment and inequality in order to keep our jobs. Equality and justice are for everyone, and we can serve as leaders in our communities, and beyond, to make sure that it truly is.

Banning of Short-Handled Hoe

Photo: Critical Commons

A very specific thing that Cesar Chavez did that improved the life of farmers everywhere is the banning of the short-handled hoe, also known as el cortito. The short tool caused farmworkers to bend over to tend to crops, which resulted in continuous and debilitating back pain. Cesar Chavez’s fight led to the tool being banned from fields in California in 1975.

Immigration Reform and Support of Undocumented Immigrants

Despite people trying to twist history in their favor, Cesar Chavez wasn’t against undocumented immigrants. In fact, he championed immigration reform (he just didn’t want to break the strike). In fact, “the UFW opposed making it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers,” and “helped enact the amnesty provision of the 1986 immigration law through which 1 million farm workers became legal residents.” You can see more ways in which the UFW stood with undocumented workers here.

Civil Rights

Cesar Chavez believed in the unity of community, civil rights, and looking out for others. He is quoted as saying, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community…Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” Chavez’s ambitions lead him to help pass the first Bill of Rights for farmworkers, and to inspire us to fight for civil rights today.

Environmentalism and Health Advocacy

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Part of Cesar Chavez’s activism revolved around environmental concerns, paired with concerns regarding farmworkers’ health. He is quoted as saying, “We farm workers are closest to food production. We were the first to recognize the serious health hazards of agriculture pesticides to both consumers and ourselves.” He saw how chemicals in pesticides and fertilizers were leading to cancer, birth deformities, and other major health issues (including death), and how current farming methods also weren’t taking the environment into consideration and took action.

Latinxs Uniting for Justice and Equality

Photo: LaOferta

One of the biggest things that Cesar Chavez has taught us (along with Dolores Huerta, and other civil rights leaders) is that Latinxs are more powerful together. That we can unite under a common goal to further the causes that are important to our people. That our voice is stronger in unison.

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