Cesar Chavez and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement
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In the mid-1960s thousands of Chicanos, people of Mexican descent, walked off the California grape fields in which they worked in protest of exploitation and poor working conditions. They wanted fair wages, better working conditions, and education for their children. They wanted all the opportunities that were extended to other Americans. Among the disgruntled employees was the soft-spoken César Chávez, who believed that his people’s plight could be resolved through the mechanism of non-violent protests. Chief among these mechanisms were his firm belief in fasting and non-violent strikes. These beliefs were the combined result of his childhood experiences, significant encounters with influential persons, educational pursuits and his religious persuasions. The use of these non-violent mechanisms consequently brought national awareness to the Chicano workers’ cause and an inevitable solution to their plight. Hence, it can be argued that César Chávez’s firm belief in fasting and non-violent protests were pivotal factors which had an influential effect on the Chicano’s civil rights movement.
The formative years of César Chávez
The formative years of César Chávez contributed significantly to his future role as a civil rights advocate for the Chicanos and other migrant workers. These formative years comprised many experiences which helped to carve and create the principles and identity that Chávez firmly upheld. These lasting experiences which spanned many decades began during his adolescent period and continued well into his adult life. The first of these experiences was the loss of Chávez’s family farm, land, and business during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. During this emotional era in American history Chávez’s father Librado lost the family farm and business in 1939 due to the family’s inability to pay taxes (The Rhetorical 12). This event was significant since it introduced the young Chávez to the indigent life of migrant workers which was plagued with many hardships, turmoil, and never-ending misery. These migrant workers, who were mainly Mexican Americans and other illegal immigrants, were at the mercy of farm owners who exploited then in many ways.
For instance, newcomers such as Chávez’s family often fell prey to the devices of the unjust farm owners. For example, in one memorable incident the Chávez family was hired by a contractor who had failed to pay the family even after they had worked for him for seven weeks. The contractor’s inability to pay was linked to the poor quality of his grapes which yielded a very low price from the wineries. Thus, in order to maximize his profits he chose not to pay the Chávez family, and one morning he simply disappeared, leaving the family destitute (Taylor 60). In addition to these events of deceit, the wages and living conditions afforded to migrant workers were far less than humane. For instance, migrant workers often earned wages of about two dollars a day up to $2500 per year (NLCC Educational Media). Such meager wages could not support an entire family even in situations where every family member was employed. Thus, these minimal wages resulted in malnourished workers who were underfed and were not properly clothed even during the harsh winter period.
One such notable experience was highlighted by Chávez when he described his barefooted journeys to school in the cold mud during the winter of 1938 (The Rhetorical Career 13). Moreover, the inadequate income resulted in the lack of suitable housing. Thus, migrant workers were forced to resort to deplorable unsanitary living conditions which comprised of overcrowded places, tents, open fields, and even underneath bridges (Nelson 49). The education received by the children of migrant workers was in no way comparable to that received by their ordinary blue-eyed American counterparts. First, the migratory nature of migrant families severely affected the educational pursuits of their children who could not attend one school for extended periods. For instance, Chávez once stated that he had attended somewhere between thirty to forty different schools (Taylor 64). In addition to their haphazard careers, the issue of racism and segregated schools also affected the quality of education received by Mexican American children.
At school, the children were educated through the use of second-class equipment and by teachers who seldom took notice of the migrant children passing through. In addition to the attitude of indifference, Mexican American students were consistently barred from practicing their culture. For example, Chávez noted that he was prohibited from speaking Spanish, and students who disobeyed were made to wear a humiliating sign which declared that they were stupid simply because they spoke Spanish (64). Such acts of racism and the taunting received from Anglo students made the life of Mexican American students miserable. However, the most significant deterrent to the education of Mexican American students was the pressure to quit school in order to earn additional income for their families. For instance, even Chávez was forced to quit school at the end of the eighth grade to provide additional income for his family (The Rhetorical Career 13). According to Jensen and Hammerback, experiences such as these gave the young César Chávez a first-hand taste, feel, smell, and touch of the agony and injustices that characterized the life of his people (13). Moreover, these experiences and César’s tenure as a field worker impregnated him with a burning desire and anger to resolve the plight of his people.
Encounters with significant individuals, and the readings and beliefs of influential civil advocates inspired Chávez with creative ideas and solutions to his people’s plight. The first of these significant events was Chávez’s encounter with Father Donald McDonnell in 1952. Father Donald was a Roman Catholic scholar and civil rights activist who used his encounters with Chávez to educate the eager youngster about social injustice and labor movements organized by farmworkers. Father Donald also used his tutoring sessions to educate Chávez on Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical in which he upheld labor unions and pledged the Roman Catholic Church’s support for workers and social injustices (16). So great was Chávez’s thirst for knowledge that he enthusiastically accompanied the priest to mass and his other clerical activities. Thus, according to Hammerback and Jenson, Chávez’s friendship with Father Donald introduced Chávez to ideas and philosophical beliefs that eventually provided Chávez with an intellectual and moral basis for organizing migrant workers into a formidable force poised to change their destiny (The Words xix).
However, it can be argued that one of the most significant results of the friendship was the alliance father Donald influenced between Chávez and a local group of activists for social justice which would eventually inspire Chávez’s own crusade for farm workers. Chief among these civil advocates was Fred Ross who was introduced to Chávez by Father Donald. Fred Ross was the leader of the Community Services Organization, a militant self-help group of Mexican Americans who taught the impoverished Chicanos to help themselves with their social and economic problems (The Rhetorical Career 16). Being a civil advocate, Chávez enthusiastically began to volunteer his services, and under Ross’s tutelage Chávez eventually became a seasoned organizer. One of his first projects was a registration drive that signed up 4000 Mexican Americans, while another helped Mexican Americans gain their citizenship papers. However, Chávez‘s stint with CSO soon urged him to develop skills which he later used as the leader of a dynamic civil rights movement. For instance, Chávez soon discovered that energizing, motivating, and recruiting the masses to crave change and to work diligently to alter their present circumstances required great tactical and organizational skills.
In addition, Chávez once stated that to effectively motivate someone to crave change is to spend time with that individual and actively research the catalyst that will urge that individual to become an active participant of social change (17). Moreover, Chávez soon learnt that it was not enough to inspire the masses to work towards changing their present conditions without arming them with the necessary tools to accomplish their goals. Thus, in light of this realization Chávez embarked on a self-improvement program so as to effectively aid his people in their quest for social justice. His first step involved his feverish study of history’s great leaders with particular emphasis on individuals such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Paul, and significant individuals in Mexican American history (The Rhetorical Career 17). Consequently, it was during this period that Chávez discovered the works of Mohandas Gandhi. Chávez was immediately intrigued by Gandhi’s writings and tactics of non-violence.
Moreover, according to Hammerback and Jensen, the image of a poor individual such as Gandhi effectively challenging the British was an electrifying inspiration to young Chávez, who similarly dreamed of challenging entrenched agricultural interests in the United States (18). Chávez’s improvement program therefore equipped him with insights and tactics for ideas and topics that were a necessity to his later life. Furthermore, this self-improvement program increased Chávez’s desire to mobilize the farm workers into organized unions which would eventually eradicate their plight. However, CSO’s leaders consistently resisted Chávez’s desire to organize unions. A frustrated Chávez soon resigned in 1962 and moved to Delano where his activities as a civil and labor rights activist launched him into the middle of a civil rights movement. Unionization and the Delano Grape Strike
Before Chávez’s arrival in Delano, union leaders considered the act of organizing farm laborers into unions impossible due to the fact that a large percentage of the farm workers were illiterate and indigent, and thus lacked the financial resources and political power to even stage small protests (The Rhetorical Career 11). Nevertheless, Chávez was confident that his righteous cause would achieve success. He started campaigning by giving speeches, initiating marches, and practicing fasting. His goal was to educate his audience on the value of a farm workers’ union and convince them to join or contribute (63). Consequently, by 1962 Chávez had effectively mobilized the once-fearful migrant workers to form the National Farm Workers Association which would eventually become the United Farm Workers (66). This union offered many services to the poor migrant workers which included the creation of a credit union, a burial insurance, and even a newspaper. However, the union’s first major challenge to the established status quo emerged in the March 1965 strike by the rose workers in McFarland, California. This strike won the workers a pay increase and set the ground work for the greater strike to come.
This greater strike was the Delano Strike of September 1965. The Delano strike began when over 2000 workers of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) left their jobs due to the significantly lower wages that they received in comparison to the Mexican contract workers, the Braceros. AWOC demanded a $1.40 an hour increase or 25 cents per box of grapes picked, and $12 per gondola (Nelson 28). However, the grape growers refused to adhere to this demand. AWOC and its Filipino workers retaliated with strike action and sought the support of Chávez’s union (The Rhetorical Career 68). This support was established in September of 1965, Mexican Independence Day, when a crowd of over 1200 Mexican American migrant workers and supporters of the National Farm Workers Association officially declared war on farm owners. Consequently, according to Randy Shaw, author of Beyond the Fields, this decision to strike became the impetus of America’s first successful national consumer boycott and ultimately the beginning of the Chicano civil rights movement (Shaw 18). During the early stages of this strike, farm owners were indifferent to the striking workers, the strike, the union, and even Chávez.
They even classified the strike as a mere myth and a futile attempt by outsiders to create unrest. Moreover, the farm owners denounced Chávez’s role as a labor activist by categorizing him as an opportunist who sought to amass a fortune from the dues collected and the donations from supporters (The Rhetorical Career 69). Furthermore, the picketing workers were attacked on many fronts. For instance, they were served with injunctions which demanded that they conduct their picketing activities away from the farm owners’ grape fields and adjoining property (NLCC Educational Media). Moreover, striking workers were even subjected to acts of violence at the hands of farm owners, their supporters, and even local law enforcement officials. For instance, it was common for angry grape farmers to walk along picketing lines and purposefully stomp on the toes of picketers, trip the workers as they walked along, and even jab them in their ribs (Dunne 25). Picketers were even at the mercy of motorists who purposefully sought to overrun them. Such acts of violence were frustrating to picketers who were bound to an oath of non-violence.
Chávez subsequently realized that fighting the farmers in their local territory was a lost cause. Thus, Chávez sought to encourage the nation to boycott all grapes and grape-related products in an attempt to effectively capture the grape farmers’ attention. This boycott soon led to an industry-wide boycott which began in January of 1968 and which soon burst into major public support for the Chicano movement (Shaw 22). Furthermore, the boycott significantly reduced the farmers’ revenues and ultimately forced growers to recognize Chávez as a serious threat. Thus, the boycott soon led to negotiations with two major growers. However, despite the signing of a contract with at least two growers, they were not representative of the major Delano grape farmers who were reluctant to give in to Chávez and the picketers (21). Moreover, by 1968, almost three years into the strike, tensions were ripe between union members and the growers. This tension soon escalated to a height where threats of violence were hinted at from both sides.
In addition, the picketers were losing faith in their oath of non-violence and dedication to peaceful protests that were the founding principles of the union, the strike, and the boycott. As a result, on Valentine’s Day, 1968, Chávez decided to fast, an ultimate act which reflected the epitome of all his childhood experiences, his study of Gandhi, and his firm belief that any form of violence would lead to the pivotal defeat of the civil rights movement. However, according to Hammerback and Jensen, Chávez’s decision to fast was originally misunderstood by labor leaders, political figures, and even some of his closest supporters. Thus many union leaders, picketers, and volunteers saw the fast as a waste of their time. Moreover, some members actually quit the union in frustration (The Words 158). Nevertheless, the United Farm Workers general assembly responded favorably to the fast and their loyalty remained intact. Moreover, the fast soon served as a unifying force which renewed the union and the Chicano movement’s sense of hope and unity and also restored the power of non-violence.
In addition, the fast also intensified the national attention dedicated to the Chicano’s civil rights movement. However, the fast ultimately prevented the Chicano picketers from being viewed as an angry mob of worthless trouble makers. Furthermore, the fast brought a sense of dignity to the Chicano’s quest for liberty and equality (NLCC Educational Media). Consequently, by the end of the twenty-five day fast, the picketers and the union members had enthusiastically committed themselves to the non-violent solution to their plight. As a result boycott measures were intensified and spread nationwide to the point where supermarket chains and retailers were being targeted (NLCC Educational Media). This picketing of supermarket chains and retailers eventually resulted in their decisions to stop selling the grapes of farm owners who were not in support of the Chicanos. Consequently, this decision finally resulted in the signing of contracts between the union and the remaining grape farmers by July 29th, 1970, five years after the beginning of the strike (NLCC Educational Media). Conclusion
In overview, it can be argued that César Chávez was encouraged to build a union for his Chicano people and all farm workers alike. This unrelenting urge was influenced by his collection of personal experiences, influential encounters, and heroic inspirations from his mentors. Moreover, from those experiences Chávez learnt that it was not enough to simply accept the dogmas, beliefs, and unchanging negative circumstances, but to continually seek new strategies until his main objective was accomplished. However, most importantly, these experiences and the education gathered in his formative year ultimately taught him the true meaning of endurance which meant sacrificing himself to accomplish the seemingly daunting feat. Thus, it can be argued that César Chávez’s decision to fast and his firm belief in non-violent protest were pivotal factors that indefinitely altered the Chicanos’ world view and ultimately impregnated every man, woman, and child with a sense of cultural pride and nationalism that was once nonexistent.
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