César Chávez
César Estrada Chávez was born on March 31, 1927 near Yuma Arizona. He was named after his great-grandfather Cesario, who was an escaped slave. His grandfather settled in the United States with his wife Dorotea in order to make a better life for the family. In 1924, one of Cesario's sons, Librado married Juana Estrada, and they had six children together. Their second child was César Estrada Chávez, and he was their oldest son.
César's father Librado was a successful and hardworking individual. He operated a general store and was elected postmaster in addition to caring for the family's farm, which was near the Gila Valley. When César was ten years old, the family lost the farm through a dishonest deal made with their Anglo neighbor. César's father had agreed to clear eighty acres of land and in exchange he would receive the deed to the forty acres that adjoined the family's adobe home. The agreement was broken and the land was sold to an individual named Justus Jackson. César's father asked aid from a lawyer, who advised him to take out a loan to buy the land. When the family could not pay the interest on the loan, they lost everything. The same lawyer bought the land back and sold it to the original owner. It was then that César learned the lessons of injustice that he would remember later in life.
When the family lost their land, they picked up their belongings and headed to California. They joined over 300,000 migrant workers who followed the crops in search of jobs. Many of these individuals had lost their lands and jobs as a result of the Great Depression. In 1938 the family lived in La Colonia Barrio in Oxnard, then returned to Arizona a couple of months later. In June 1939, Cesar's family returned to California and settled in the barrio neighborhood "Sal Si Puedes. "Get out if you can." César felt the only way to break the cycle of poverty was to work his way up and send his kids to college.
Migrant workers would travel from state to state searching for jobs, picking whatever was in season. These people had no permanent homes; many lived in their cars or in tents. The lived in overcrowded quarters, without electricity, running water, or bathrooms. Many of these workers were of Mexican or Asian descent.
The school situation for the children was not easy. Often the teachers were prejudiced against the Spanish-speaking students. As a young boy César did not like school because of the fact that Spanish was forbidden at school. This was the language he spoke at home. He recalls of being punished harshly with a ruler every time he violated a rule. In addition, he remembers during that time most of the schools were segregated and the integrated schools had a very hostile environment. Racist remarks were the norm. Also, many of the teachers were neither friendly nor helpful because they knew the children would be moving from school to school. They thought teaching these children wasn't worth the effort. During the course of his education, Chávez attended over thirty-seven schools. In 1942, he graduated from eighth grade. He did not return to high school because his father became injured in an accident and he did not want his mother Juana to have to work in the fields. Chávez began working full-time. Eventually the family was able to rent a small cottage in San Jose. In 1944, Chávez joined the navy and served in the western pacific near the end of World War II. In 1948, he married Helen Fabela and they move into a one room shack in Delano, California. Chávez started working in the fields again, but this time he began to fight for a change in the conditions. That year he participated in his first strike in protest of the low wages and the poor working conditions. Several days later the workers were forced back into the fields.
In 1952, César Chávez met Fred Ross, while laboring in the apricot orchids outside of San Jose. Ross was part of the Community Service Organization (CSO), which was a barrio self help group formed by Saul Alinsky. Chavez joined the group and began encouraging Mexican-Americans to vote. He traveled throughout California making speeches in support of workers' rights, and helped organize CSO chapters in California and Arizona. In 1958, and into the early sixties, Chávez became the national director of the CSO. He tried to convince the CSO to help farm workers organize, but to no avail.
Chávez left the CSO four years later. He resigned from his job and moved his wife and children to Delano, California in order to form his own organization the National Farm Workers Association. The name later became the United Farm Workers Movement. (UFW). His dream was to create an organization to help farm workers. The situation was difficult for the large Chávez family. His wife Helen had to work in the fields during the week and on weekends. Chávez traveled to many California communities in order to gain support for the movement. In 1965, César Chávez and the UFW led a strike against the grape pickers demanding higher wages and better working conditions. As part of their plan they encouraged Americans to boycott table grapes. The strike lasted for over five years. It attracted famous people to the cause such as Robert and Ethel Kennedy. When the Senate Subcommittee looked into the situation, Robert Kennedy gave Chávez his total support.
In 1968, Chávez began a fast to call attention to the farm workers plight. This fast increased public awareness of the situation. The grape strike was finally settled, and an agreement was reached. In 1973, the UFW organized a strike for lettuce growers. Also, in the 1980's Chávez began a crusade on the use of pesticides on grapes. He began another fast. Most of the strikes and boycotts he led eventually ended up with the signing of bargaining agreements.
César Chávez passed away on April 23, 1993 in San Luis. He was sixty-six years old. There were more than 40,000 people that participated in his funeral. In 1991, Chávez received the Aguila Azteca, which is Mexico's highest award presented to people of Mexican heritage who have made major contributions outside of Mexico. In 1994, Chávez also received posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He became only the second Mexican American to receive this award, which is the highest civilian honor in the United States.

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