Cesar Chavez, the farm worker turned activist and leader, became a critical part of American history when his involvement in boycotts and strikes came to national attention during a time when little attention was given to migrant farm workers. Through his devotion and struggle, he has reshaped America’s standards of society. However, when Cesar Chavez is mentioned to Americans today, both positive and negative connotations come to mind. Chavez is responsible for improving the rights of farm workers, most notably Mexican American and migrant workers, through the leading of many strikes and boycotts spanning most of the twentieth century. These strikes and boycotts were conducted while Chavez was involved in the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, where he eventually became president (Cesar 1). The UFW’s membership and support dramatically decreased during Chavez’s latter years of presidency of the union, and many blame this downfall on Chavez(Thompson 17). This essay will explore whether Chavez’s leadership and role in the UFW during its downfall helped or hindered his previous accomplishments and successes, which contribute to his legacy.
On March 31, 1927, Cesar Chavez was born into a Mexican American migrant worker family in Yuma, Arizona. Little did America know, this date marked the birth of a true leader and activist for migrant farm workers’ rights. Chavez worked the fields from a young age and this prevented him from getting an education past the eight grade (Cesar 1). According to the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Chavez became involved in migrant workers’ rights in 1952, by joining the Community Service Organization (CSO), and later went on to form the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 (Cesar 1). Through the use of strikes and boycotts, Chavez was able to gain attention from the large farm corporations, not stopping until contracts were signed, allowing for higher wages and better work conditions. Chavez became involved with the UFW in 1966, and became president in 1972 (Cesar 1). This is where Chavez completed most of his major boycotts and strikes, gaining not only national attention, but national support as well. Although Chavez was best know for his success in the boycotts of grape pickers, he also supported boycotts of other crops and farm workers. Chavez began a boycott in 1968, which resulted in huge success as nationwide support was present by Americans, of all social and ethnic backgrounds (Cesar 1). However, the following years proved to be hostile for the UFW, as internal disagreements and arguments arose, eventually leading to diminished membership. Although, the UFW’s size and strength struggled, Chavez continued to push for civil rights for grape pickers. In 1986, Chavez began the Wrath of Grapes Boycott, which was built on the fact that DDT and pesticides sprayed on fields were harming, sickening, and even killing not just grape pickers, but all farm workers (Chavez 690). Chavez remained boycotting and fighting for the rights of farm workers until his death in 1993 (Cesar 1).
Chavez’s years in the UFW were both praised and scrutinized, as many critics argued that the structure of the UFW was what ultimately led to its downfall, with Chavez being the catalyst by way of his leadership role in the union. One such believer in this thought is former UFW member Frank Bardacke, who was interviewed about his time in the UFW and thoughts on Chavez by Gabriel Thompson in “A Union With Two Souls”. In the interview Bardacke expresses the flaws with Chavez’s actions while in the UFW and the flaws of the UFW itself. Bardacke points out Chavez’s desire to have complete control of the UFW, and uses the example of Chavez denying a strike of lettuce farm workers in 1979 because he feared it would disrupt the successfulness of the ongoing boycott of grape pickers (Thompson 18). The other leaders of the UFW were not happy about this, especially Mario Bustamante, who believed Chavez was selfish in his decision to deny the strike (Thompson 18). This statement of Bardacke concerning Chavez’s desire to have complete control over the UFW simply does not make sense. The lettuce strike eventually was passed by Bustamante in the UFW, and the strike was won in a matter of two weeks (Thompson 18). At this point in his activism career, Chavez had gained nationwide attention for migrant workers, as millions of Americans, wealthy and middle class, refused to buy grapes in the wake and ongoing aftermath of the boycott. Chavez was simply just finishing what he started in the boycott of grape pickers, and did not want to lose all of the rights gained in the boycott by migrant California grape pickers. In fact, what ultimately led to the downfall of the UFW was its “rank and file” organization, which gave more power to the non-farm worker supporters and leaders of the union, rather than the farm workers themselves (Thompson 17). Farm workers were organized in the union in groups by where and what they farmed and could propose a strike, which would have to get passed by the leaders of the UFW (Thompson 17). If the strike did not get passed, the workers would get angered and stressed because of the previous success of other boycotts and strikes. This anger should not have been taken out on Chavez, who was a major building block of the foundation and formation of the UFW, and was responsible for many of the successes of the union. Chavez’s leadership and decision making was essential to the success of the UFW, and his lack of support on one strike should not have defined him as one of the leading factors to the UFW’s demise.
It was with the UFW where Chavez became involved with the Wrath of Grapes Boycott and other successful boycotts that brought migrant farm workers’ rights to the forefront of American issues. Chavez used his previous experience and natural leadership while in the UFW to organize farm workers into unions that allowed for successful boycotting and strikes (Thompson 16). However, the UFW lost both supporters and members because of internal disagreements, and eventually became less prevalent. Although the UFW lost support and membership during Chavez’s latter years of involvement in the union, his willing to sacrifice for migrant farm workers led to a legacy filled with accomplishment. In Chavez’s speech to a group of farm workers outside of a church in Keene, California, in the fall of 1971, he keeps the reoccurring theme of sacrifice, rather than money, being the main ingredient to success in the grape picker’s boycott (Chavez 11). Chavez states, “…I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in totally nonviolent struggle for justice. God help us to be men!” (Chavez 11). Chavez was so willing to sacrifice himself for farm workers that he was constantly traveling, working with and boycotting with farm workers all over California, so eager to gather more people to join the UFW and the fight for justice. Chavez made sure this fight was nonviolent and efficient as he refused to accept money from the rich and supporters, using his money and dues collected from union members. Chavez’s sacrifice and willingness to sacrifice continued to the very end of his leadership position in the UFW. During the Wrath of Grapes Boycott, the UFW was in full decline but Chavez’s values and commitment to his people remained at the same high level as it always had been at. In Chavez’s Wrath of Grapes Boycott Speech, he states that, “I see us as one big family.”(Chavez 690). This togetherness of farm workers even during the hardship of a boycott and the struggling UFW, not only shows Chavez’s sacrifice, but his dedication to farm workers and his disregard of what people would eventually see as his legacy. This legacy is overwhelmingly filled with positive accomplishments, even through all the negativity brought with the latter years of Chavez’s involvement in the UFW.
Chavez’s success with boycotts and willingness to sacrifice for an important cause was overshadowed by the civil rights movement, which occurred at the height of Chavez’s success in the UFW. This is significant because while African Americans were being led on a path to civil rights by the historic Martin Luther King, Mexican American migrant workers were also being led by Chavez to an outcome of better working conditions and wages. The civil rights movement was not only prevalent in King’s beliefs, but in Chavez’s as well, as both were strikingly similar non violent leaders who never gave up even after their main goal was accomplished. Chavez and King also used the same tactics when it came to boycotting, gathering people who would normally not have a say in American society with middle and upper class America. Chavez and King not only were essential to minority rights in America, but forming a unity between whites and minorities and the middle, upper class with the Hispanic farm worker. Although King is known throughout the world and accomplishments are much more widely known in American minds, Chavez was an important and essential part of American history whose accomplishments still affect farm workers to this day. During a speech in October in Keene, California at the Cesar Chavez memorial, President Barack Obama stated, “…the truth is we would not be here if it weren’t for Cesar.”(Obama 2). Chavez stood up for the “invisible” group of people in America, the farm workers (Obama 2). Chavez took a bold step when deciding to dedicate his entire life to help Hispanic farm workers. Chavez’s upbringing contributed to his leadership and desire to use non-violent measures to gain civil rights for previously unrecognized farm workers. Chavez’s relentless leadership of farm workers and the UFW through times of extreme difficulty is what defines his legacy, a legacy filled with accomplishment and success that still resonates in present day America.
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