Cesar Chavez, An American Hero
César Estrada Chávez is well known as a champion of the poor and oppressed. He founded the National Farm Workers Association that later became the United Farm Workers.
Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona. He became a migrant farm worker at age 10, with the rest of his family, when they lost their farm during The Great Depression. He attended over 30 schools, but ended his formal education with the eighth grade.
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1946 and served in the western Pacific. After service, he returned to central California and married Helen Fabela. He began working as a organizer in 1952, working for the Community Services Organization, a Latino civil rights group. He became their national director in the late 1950s, but resigned in 1962 to form the National Farm Workers Association, which became the United Farm Workers.
In 1965, Chávez and the NFWA led a strike of California grape-pickers in demand of higher wages, along with a national boycott of California table grapes, which, five years later resulted in the first major victory for US migrant workers. He continued to struggle against large growers, including going on three hunger strikes over wages and conditions. At the time of his death he was leading another grape boycott to protest the use of harmful pesticides.
He became an American labor rights hero for supporting labor rights for Mexican migrant farm workers. Chávez was also an ethical vegetarian and a strong proponent of nonviolence.
Interestingly, Chávez and other migrant farm workers who were legal US citizens were torn between racial and class loyalty. Liberal immigration policies increased Hispanic representation in the US, but harmed the working class by driving down unskilled wages. Chávez sided with workers first and Hispanics second, strongly opposed liberal immigration policies, and favored deporting illegal immigrants.
Chávez is celebrated in California where the state legislature, in 2000, approved a bill to create a paid state holiday in his honor. The holiday is celebrated on March 31st, Chávez's birthday. Texas also recognizes the day, as does Denver, and in Arizona and Colorado it is an optional holiday. The holiday is the first in the history of the United States for a Mexican American and a labor leader.
Many cities have also paid respect by renaming streets or schools for him. These cities include San Francisco, Los Angeles, California, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Austin, Texas Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Washington, DC, Kansas City, Missouri, and Salt Lake City. The California cities of Sacramento, San Diego, Berkeley, and San Jose have also renamed parks in his memory. The United States Postal Service honored him with a stamp in 2004.
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