César Chávez

César Chávez

(1927-1993)

DJ Name: DJ Cez the Day

While Joe Biden was sworn in as the United States’ 46th president (we heard it was a cold and fun festivity with a few flurries, but Lena Horne wasn’t present this time), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was in the Bronx with a bullhorn to give extra momentum behind union workers’ push for better wages. Workers at the Hunts Point Produce Market, which distributes about 60 percent of the Big Apple’s apples and other fruits, organized within their union to call for a $1/hour raise. Management conceded a mere additional 32 cents an hour, which wasn’t cutting it for these essential workers — they’d risked their lives throughout the pandemic to make sure New Yorkers (like Emmy) had fresh fruit on their tables, and they were being denied an extra dollar an hour? They built this city (on rock n’ roll, but also fresh fruities) and they’re not gonna take it anymore. Thanks to the union’s efforts (and perhaps AOC’s added diligence), the workers reached a deal with management on January 23 that gives them the raise they asked for, along with a three-year contract that will end with a $1.85/hour bump in workers’ third year. 

But decades before this union succeeded in championing workers’ rights and wages, César Chávez organized agricultural workers on the West Coast and planned strikes to make sure laborers got some of the respect that they deserved. With DJ Cez the Day’s organizing efforts, workers were able to seize the day but also have time off and earn enough money at the end of their days for fam time and vacay. So to put AOC and these Bronx workers’ actions into context, let’s take a look back at César Chávez’s life and press play on this hype playlist he created to motivate workers to never cross the picket line.

César Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Arizona, to Mexican immigrant parents. César was named after his grandfather, Cesario, a Mexican who crossed into Texas in 1898 and started a successful business hauling wood for people near Yuma. Cesario and his wife, Dorotea, brought their eight children — their youngest, Librado, was César’s dad — with them into the U.S. and, in 1906, they bought a farm in the Sonora Desert’s North Gila Valley — think tall prickly cacti, expansive blue skies and lots of javelinas (wild boars, otherwise known as Emmy’s mom’s fav animal) sniffin’ through the sagebrush. César’s mom, Juana, also entered the U.S. with her mom from Chihuahua, Mexico, as a baby. Juana moved from California to Yuma to work as a farm laborer, and later as an assistant to the chancellor at the University of Arizona (Go Wildcats!), before marrying Librado in the early 1920s. The newlyweds had a daughter, Rita, in 1925, and César followed two years later. In total, there were six kiddos, and César and his hermanos grew up in a Spanish-speaking, devout Catholic household. Abuela Dorotea oversaw the kids’ Catholic instruction, but they also found time to listen to boxing matches on the radio and play games of handball. 

However, tragedy began to strike as César entered his preteen years when Dorotea passed away in 1937 and his family lost their farm as the Great Depression took its toll. Dorotea’s land was intended for familia, but the Yuma County government seized her land and assets to cover back taxes. César, who was just 11 years old, saw the injustice in this and cez’d his emotions of unfairness. This was his first personal experience with American malfeasance, and he’d hold on to this moment for a long time. His Catholic upbringing showed him that those who were poor were a source of good in society, and they weren’t the parasites.

After they lost their land, César and his family joined the many other migrant workers of the Great Depression era and moved to California to tend the fields. The Chávez familia started out as avocado pickers in Oxnard and then pea pickers in Pescadero before moving into a garage in San Jose’s impoverished Mexican community — which was called “Sal Si Puedes,” or “get out if you can.” His family moved frequently over the next 10 years, as they moved from farm to farm, and César learned a lot about the hardships and cruelties, such as terrible conditions in migrant camps, corrupt labor contractors, racism and pitiful wages, in a typical farmer’s life. Because of all the moving around and his family’s poverty, César was only able to attend school through eighth grade — specifically, he attended 37 schools — before he had to join his familia full-time tending farmland. As a niño, César didn’t even get to really understand and enjoy the lessons taught at the schools he attended because, sadly, Spanish wasn’t permitted in many of them. Though he had a negative experience with escuelas he attended, he really came to value education as his life went on. It became a passion of his so much so that the headquarters for the United Farm Workers had walls lined with books upon books that ranged in subject scope from philosophy to economics to biographies to romance novels. OK. Just kidding about that last one. But, the man read, and he read well.

In 1946, César joined the U.S. Navy and served in the Western Pacific in the aftermath of World War II. He left the Navy two years later, and returned to Delano, California, where his family lived, to continue life as a laborer. In October 1948, he married Helen Fabela, in Reno, Nevada, who was pregnant with their first child. César, who had now spent over a decade toiling as a laborer, began to get more lit about workers’ rights when he met an activist Catholic priest named Father Donald McDonnell and Bob Fred Ross, an organizer with the Community Service Organization, in 1952. He joined the org, and within a few years he became national director. With the CSO, César helped people register to vote and hustled people to the polls (like fellow Shuffler Fannie Lou Hamer) as well as led campaigns against racial and economic discrimination. 

César even turned down a ~casual~ job offer from a ~casual~ dude, President Kennedy (nbd), to serve as head of the Peace Corps in Latin America. However, he chose to lead strikes, protests and participate in committee meetings to raise awareness and sympathy for the struggles of migrant farmworkers. His dream was to create a union for farm workers like himself who were cheated out of fair wages and decent working conditions. To devote himself to fulfilling this dream, César resigned from the CSO in 1962 and set to work on trying to give more power to laborers. The history of farmers’ unions was not a pretty one — unions fell apart quickly and strikes often ended in violence — but César said “si se puede” and did the dang thing anyway.

With $1,200 in his savings account, César started the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America, with just 10 members — him and his wife and their eight kids. César’s li’l baby union faced an important moment in 1965 when it voted to join a strike that was started by Filipino grape field workers in Delano. Because of their unwavering allegiance, César’s union gained national recognition — he, after learning Gandhi’s teachings, insisted on nonviolence, drew on imagery of the Civil Rights movement, relied on volunteers from universities and religious organizations to ally themselves with the strikers and he mobilized large numbers of laborers to march in Sacramento. The grape field workers’ gripes were thrown into the national spotlight so much so that César spoke on the Today Show to tell the world that they shouldn’t buy grapes from California until farmworkers received better wages and better working conditions. The world answered and boycotted supermarkets that sold grapes from the Golden State. 

Chávez eventually negotiated with Lionel Steinberg, a grape grower in southern Cali, to sign a contract in which Steinberg agreed to put a union logo on his products to show his support of fair working conditions. This ensured that peeps would buy their fruity tutties. Other growers followed fruit…ah, we mean, suit, and new contracts were signed the next year. But the grape gripes weren’t completely solved yet, and César took on a solo hunger strike for 25 days to advocate for peace within the union. Peace finally fell over the vineyards on July 29, 1970, when 26 Delano vineyard workers signed contracts recognizing César’s union. One could say, they achieved “grapeness”. Ha. No? OK.

But the work didn’t stop there. In the late 1960s, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) merged with an American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to form the United Farm Workers Organization Committee (insert acronym lol) which eventually became the United Farm Workers. Rivalry ran high when another union of teamsters, literally called the Teamsters Union, organized and encouraged farmers to sign up for their union instead of the UFW. César, unhappy with this, worked with the AFL-CIO to reach a peace pact with the Teamsters that declared the UFW as the sole union that could organize farmworkers and field-workers. 

Now that they were, for the time being, the one and only union, they needed a headquarters to host their meetings that made the magic happen. UFW acquired a facility in Delano, Cali, and named it “The Forty Acres,” which today is preserved by the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and is marked as a U.S. National Historic Landmark District. It was here at Forty Acres that Cèsar embarked on another fast for about a month before he ended this show of resistance publicly, at which Bobby Kennedy was present. In true fashion of good ole’ Catholic boys, they broke bread together. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy announced his run for presidency in the Democratic primary and César cha cha cha’d around Cali to register farm workers as Democrats and encourage them to vote RFK. He was present when Kennedy was assassinated, and attended his funeral as a pallbearer. 

César’s work continued throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s as he continuously used nonviolent methods in this decades-long movement against economic injustices that migrant workers faced. A common chant heard during a Chávez-led rally or march was, “Viva La Causa” (Long live our cause), which hyped up participants as they strutted and such to continue to keep the nation’s eyes and ears on the unfair conditions that their fruits and veggies came from. Lettuce remember that César’s plight didn’t just address grapes and such, he also negotiated with lettuce cutters, melon growers and even some farm owners outside of Cali. 

César underwent yet another fast to contest the lettuce industry, and workers supported him by striking during which production dropped by three quarters and prices of lettuce doubled (supply and demand, yo!). One owner of a lettuce company got an injunction that legally prevented boycotts against them, but César persisted, was arrested and spent 10 days in prison. People gathered outside of the prison during the extent of the 10 days (big names include MLK Jr.s’ widow, Coretta King, and Ethel Kennedy, RFK’s widow) to pray and host a Catholic vigil. The California Supreme Court released César, and dissolved much of the injunction. 

Another location was opened by the UFW for unioners to gather, and it was named “Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz” AKA Our Lady Queen of Peace, but was commonly called “La Paz.” Here, Chávez created a communal living facility where workers could stay safely. Though the UFW was making strides and reaching agreements on better treatment for workers, the organization still faced a ton of hate like in Arizona where Governor Jack Williams criminalized boycotts. Cèsar rallied workers to protest in Arizona, but as his scope and reach increased, so too did some problemas back in California where his work originally began. Some members of the UFW were not happy that they had to pay monthly membership fees while their work was seasonal, and others didn’t like that the new HQ at La Paz was more isolated. California growers, also, tried to ban boycotts. As the growers’ contracts with the UFW expired, many did not renew. The contracts fell from 150 to 12, and eventually only covered 6,500 workers. 

Despite the setbacks, Cèsar continued his work and met with Governor Jerry Brown to create and implement a farm labor law that recognized and protected migrant workers. With support from Governor Brown, and after many a rally, fast (in Cèsar’s case), protests and appeals, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was signed into law in June 1975. This guaranteed farm workers the right to organize, choose their own union representative and negotiate with their employers. However, despite this new law, the UFW never regained all of its members and momentum it once had. It did, though, eventually hold contracts in California, Texas and Florida. 

Still, the work continued into the ‘80s when César completed yet another fast for 36 days (more like daze) to focus public attention on pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their kiddos. This particular fast created a chain reaction in which, after his time finished, Reverend Jesse Jackson fasted for three days, and passed the fast on to other nationally recognized people such as Emilio Estevez, Kerry Kennedy (RFK’s daughter), Whoopi Goldberg and more. During the final years of his life, Cèsar continued to make appearances at public events as a champion for La Causa. He peacefully passed away on April 23, 1993 near his childhood hometown of Yuma, Arizona. Just the day before, he was at a trial to protect the UFW from Bruce Church Incorporated, which demanded that the UFW pay for the damages caused by the boycotts against its lettuce company. The judgment was later thrown out by the appeals court and the company signed a contract with the UFW in 1996. 

Up until his last day of life, César Chávez cez’d the day in his *nonviolent* fight against the challenges of unfair treatment of migrant and farm workers. The movement he created and devoted his life to did not go unnoticed or ignored. His rallies, fasts and calls to action raised salaries and improved the working conditions of thousands. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1994, and over 20 years afterward he no longer cez’s the day but is instead bidin’ his time as his bust sits in President Biden’s Oval Office. 

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