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Mar 27, 2019 | Jim Harrington

Let’s Commemorate the César Chávez Holiday with More than Platitudes

March 31 is the birthday of César Chávez, the farm labor leader who dedicated his life to improving the wages and working conditions of agricultural workers, one of the country’s poorest and most exploited groups of laborers. It is also one of the most ethnically and racially identifiable groups. Texas provides a large share of these workers, at home and around the nation.

Not only did César lead the historic non-violent movement for farm worker rights for thirty years; but he inspired thousands of people, who never worked in agriculture, to commit themselves to social, economic, and environmental justice and civil rights in their own communities. And he became an iconic "folk saint" in the Mexican American community.

César’s impact is reflected in the holidays designated for him in eleven states and in the parks, cultural centers, libraries, schools, and streets that carry his name in cities across Texas and the United States. In Texas, March 31 is an optional state holiday, which many community-based organizations honor.It became a federal commemorative holiday in 2014.

César knew the hardscrabble life of farm laborers. He had to leave school after eighth grade to work in the fields as a migrant to support his family. He volunteered for the U.S. Navy in 1944.

After returning from the Navy, César coordinated voter registration drives and campaigns against racial discrimination; but he really wanted to build an organization to protect and serve farm workers. So, in 1962, along with Dolores Huerta, he founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America.

César led the first successful farm workers union in U.S. history. The initial victory was the five-year-long Delano Grape Boycott that, in 1970, gave union protection to 10,000 farm laborers. Time magazine featured César on its cover under the banner “The Grapes of Wrath, 1969: Mexican-Americans on the March.”

By the late 1970s, his organizing tactics had forced growers to recognize the UFW as the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in California and Florida. Stevie Wonder paid tribute to Césarin his 1976 “Black Man.”

The union helped achieve dignity, respect, fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits, humane working conditions, and other protections for tens of thousands of farm laborers – and won the first industry-wide labor contracts in American agriculture.

César believed in, and used, the aggressive, nonviolent tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. — fasts, boycotts, strikes, and marches. People felt his love and, in turn, showed him their love. When he died in 1993, at age 66, more than 50,000 people of all walks of life marched three miles in his funeral procession under Delano, California’s hot sun.

César’s impact on Texans extended far beyond the thousands of Texas farm laborers who worked as migrants in California. His efforts to open the doors of colleges and universities to the Hispanic community reached deep into Texas, and, in turn, opened to doors to economic and political opportunity.

César was a unique leader; he motivated individuals to work on broad range of social justice and civil rights causes for poor people. He did this through forging a national coalition of students, middle class consumers, trade unionists, religious groups, and minority people, here in Texas and throughout the nation.

We do not measure César’s life in material terms. He never owned a house or earned more than $6,000/year. Rather, we measure his life as a person who stood, and worked, for equality, justice, and dignity for all Americans, and who inspired thousands of others to do the same. As he put it, “the truest act of valor is to give ourselves to others in a nonviolent struggle for justice.”

We commemorate César’s birthday, not just to honor him, but as a day on which to re-commit ourselves to the struggle to make our community and our country a better place for all.

Harrington, a human rights attorney, is Founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project and now serves as Pastoral Leader for Proyecto Santiago Missional Community at St. James’ Episcopal, Austin. HeworkedwithCésar Chávez in Texas for18 years.

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