By Michelle Lum
Each year, Mudders have a day off at the end of March in celebration of Cesar Chavez. But who was Cesar Chavez? Why do we commemorate his birthday with a national holiday on March 31 every year?
Born in Arizona in 1927, Chavez came from a family of farmers. During the Great Depression, his family lost their farm and moved to California to labor in the fields as migrant farm workers. They received low wages, faced harsh living conditions and prejudice, and had to move constantly to find work. Chavez only completed his education up to the eighth grade level — still a child, he began working full-time in the fields to help support his family.
California’s history is tied deeply to its agricultural industry, stemming from the fertile soil of the Central Valley and the development of advanced irrigation techniques. Today, our state accounts for more than one-tenth of the nation’s agricultural output.
But agriculture is built on the backs of the workers who plow the fields, plant the crops, and reap the harvest, and their task is far from easy.
Farm workers have long been exploited. In 1965, grape pickers made around $0.90 an hour and $0.10 for every basket they picked, while paying around $2 per day for shacks without plumbing or kitchens.
Chavez became involved with the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group that helped the community with voter registration and fought against racism and economic discrimination.
In 1962, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which would later become the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), the first farm workers’ union in the U.S. He chose the Aztec eagle as the symbol for the UFW to highlight the pride and dignity to which everyone, including farm workers, should be entitled.
Though people said that organizing farm workers would be an impossible task, as an advocate for nonviolent means of protest, Chavez rallied farm workers behind his motto “Sí se puede!”, meaning “Yes, it can be done!” and personally fasted for periods of time as long as 25 and 36 days to protest a law against the organization of farm workers and pesticide poisoning. In 1966, he led a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to draw attention to the farm workers’ movement, La Causa (the cause). Chavez also organized a boycott of grapes that led to California passing the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 that guaranteed farm workers’ rights to organize and negotiate. Chavez helped introduce important initiatives like a farmers’ credit union, daycare, and health clinics.
Chavez was a great leader, pioneer for workers’ rights, and agent of change. When he passed away in his sleep in 1993, more than 50,000 attended his funeral. Today, his legacy lives on in the fields of California and farms all over.
So, that’s the story of Cesar Chavez — while you’re enjoying your day off, be sure to remember why we have Cesar Chavez Day, and keep Chavez’s memory and legacy in mind.