By Paul F. Chávez
On April 1, California celebrates the second annual César Chávez Day of Service and Learning. Millions of people from across the state, in both urban and rural areas, will participate in service-learning projects to improve and empower themselves and their communities. In the spirit of my father’s legacy, these projects will promote non-violence, justice, equality, tolerance, environmental stewardship and respect for humanity-demonstrating the power and timelessness of his principles and his vision for a better world.
On this momentous day, it is important to reflect on who César E. Chávez was, so that our generation and generations to come can continue to carry on his legacy. Especially in the wake of recent events, my father’s life and work serve as a powerful reminder that how we respond to hatred and violence is a direct reflection of our nation’s character. His values provide everyone, particularly youth, with an example of how to overcome adversity and continue to work for justice, freedom and acceptance of all people.
A second-generation American, my father was born on March 31, 1927, on a small farm near Yuma, Arizona. As a child and young adult, he and his family migrated across the Southwest laboring in the fields, enduring the hardships and injustices of farm worker life.
After achieving only an eighth-grade education, he left school to work full time in the fields to support his family. His formal education ended then, but reading and learning were life-long pursuits for him. He joined the US Navy in 1945, and served his country honorably in the Western Pacific during the end of World War II.
He became a community organizer in 1952 with the Community Service Organization (CSO), the preeminent Latino civil rights group of its time, where he coordinated voter registration drives and campaigns to stop racial and economic discrimination against Latinos in urban areas. He later served as the CSO’s National Director.
My father’s dream, however, was to create an organization to protect and serve farm workers, whose poverty and subjugation he had shared. In 1962, he left the security of a regular paycheck to found the National Farm Workers Association, later becoming the United Farm Workers of America.
In founding and leading the first successful farm workers’ union in American history from 1962 to 1993, my father and his movement won countless rights and protections for hundreds of thousands of farm workers, among them dignity and respect, fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits, and humane living conditions.
Americans, now more than ever, are appreciating everyday heroes like my father, who dedicate their lives to serving others. César Chávez Day provides ordinary people with the extraordinary opportunity to become heroes in their communities by working in service of others. This is perhaps the greatest gift of my father’s legacy. Almost a decade after his passing, his principles for a just world remain relevant and inspiring today for all people. His example affirms that, “from the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.”
The significance and impact of his life transcends any one cause or struggle. His courage inspired millions of Americans to seek social justice and civil rights for the poor and exploited. He forged a diverse and extraordinary national coalition that united people for one cause. He brought together Jews, Arab-Americans, middle-class consumers, students, trade unionists, religious groups, women and minorities, including Latinos, Filipinos, Native Americans, African-Americans, and gays and lesbians.
His life and accomplishments cannot be measured in material terms. He never earned more than $6,000 a year and he never owned a home. When he passed, he had no personal savings to leave his family. Instead, he left his family and the world with a rich legacy to better their lives and communities through service and education. He said, “True wealth is not measured by money, status or power. It is measured by the legacy we leave behind.”
On César Chávez Day we honor my father’s legacy by teaching our children about his life and work and by improving and empowering our communities and ourselves through service to one another. As the nation moves forward in unity, we can learn a great deal from my father, a man of deep conviction who believed that only by giving of ourselves, can we truly understand the meaning of life and love. It is in this spirit that he lived his life and it is in this spirit I hope that the world will remember him.