Celebrating César Chávez Day

By Sandra G. Leon

César Chávez talks to striking Salinas Valley farm workers at a rally in 1979. Paul Sakuma, Associated Press, March 7, 1979

Friday, March 31st, is César Chávez Day in California, the only state in the country that has made an official state holiday to honor the late civil rights leader.

Chávez died in 1993, but his legacy of organizing farmer workers and advocating for better pay and working conditions for them has made him a hero to Latinos, and a civil rights icon that is generally recognized along with other historically important leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

To honor his work, California created a César Chávez Day state holiday in 2000, to be observed on his birthday, March 31, or the closest Friday or Monday. The state law requires that all schools be closed on the holiday, and the State Board of Education requires that schools teach children to the history of the farm labor movement in the United States, and specifically Cesar Chavez’s role in it. César Chávez Day was first celebrated in California in 2001.

On a national level, President Barack Obama created a federal César Chávez Day by proclamation in 2014. Although not a federal holiday that designates paid leave for government employees like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, at the time President Obama asked Americans to “observe this day with appropriate service, community, and educational programs to honor Cesar Chavez’s enduring legacy.”

Today, only 11 states observe César Chávez Day, including California, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. Nevada state law allows the Governor to declare a holiday on an annual basis, but does not designate a permanent holiday for Chavez.

So, who was this man and what did he do?

Born on March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, Chávez moved to California with his family after they lost their ranch land during the Great Depression. He quit school after the seventh grade to work in the fields so that his mother wouldn’t have to do that back-breaking work. Lacking formal education, Chávez continued to work in the fields until 1945, when, at age 19, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Chávez would later describe his enlistment as the worst two years of his life.

After his military service, Chávez returned to working the fields until 1952 when he was offered a position as an organizer for the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights non-profit that encouraged Latinos to register to vote and advocated for workers’ rights. Chávez traveled throughout the state and later rose to become the Executive Director of the organization.

Then, in 1962, Chávez and Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association, which would later become better known as the United Farm Workers, or UFW. The union gained national attention when it launched a strike of grape pickers in California in 1966, leading to a national boycott on table grapes that would last for five years.

The success of the union lead other farm workers throughout the country to organize for better wages and working conditions, including a new union in Wisconsin in 1966 and another in Ohio in 1967, and one in Texas in 1975.

Chávez’s union also launched what would become known as the Salad Bowl strike, a walkout by up to 7,000 UFW workers that led to shortages of lettuce across the country. Chávez ignored a court-ordered injunction to stop him from picketing and he was eventually arrested by federal Marshalls, and put in a local jail. The California Supreme Court ruled in Chávez’s favor and he was released after having been in jail for 19 days.

In keeping with his pacifist ideals, Chávez used fasting as an act of personal spiritual transformation. In 1968, he fasted for 25 days, in 1970, he began a fast of “thanksgiving and hope”, and in 1972, he fasted when Arizona passed legislation prohibiting boycotts and strikes by farm workers during the harvest seasons. Chávez believed his fasts reflected the Catholic tradition of penance and also followed Gandhi’s teachings of nonviolent protest.

Chávez’s activism extended well beyond the farm fields, too. In 1975, to show political leaders the impact the farm workers could make, Chávez organized a peaceful walk from San Francisco to Modesto, a 110-mile path from the Bay Area to the central valley. What started out as a small group of UFW leaders eventually grew into a crowd of 15,000 walkers. The enormous show of support lead politicians statewide to notice the plight of the farmer works.

That same year, the Legislature passed and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law (yes, the same Jerry Brown that is again Governor today) the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), which established collective bargaining rights for farmworkers. The ALRA set up the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to oversee the process, and help ensure farm workers’ rights. To this day, the ALRB continues to provide a processes for protecting, implementing, and enforcing the rights and responsibilities of employees, employers, and labor organizations in California.

In the years since his death, César Chávez has continued to inspire new generations of leaders to fight for social justice, workers’ rights, and civic engagement. For workers everywhere, beyond Latino farm workers, César Chávez set an example of what communities can accomplish when they join together for self-empowerment.

Chavez’s famous cry of “Sí se puede” continues to give communities hope of overcoming the obstacles that impede their progress. For the work left to do, and the goals yet to be attained, Chavez’s cry still reflects the hopes and dreams of all communities.

Sí se puede!

Honor César Chávez, today and always.

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