By Giving Our Lives, We Find Life
For the migrant farm worker, each day felt virtually endless; each night he was exhausted and often hungry. His life stood in stunning contrast to the lives of the comfortable families who savored the fruits of his labor. In a land that promised plenty, migrant farm workers in the ’60s had basically no voice, no rights or protections. Many of those who picked our grapes suffered the most. But how could they possibly appeal to an America that, for the most part, didn’t know they existed?
Cesar Chavez knew their troubles firsthand. As a migrant farm worker, he was an unlikely national hero. He was small, soft-spoken, and low key; a guy you could easily lose in a crowd. But this gentle giant woke up the drowsy conscience of the most powerful country in the world.
For years, Americans had brought home sweet, plump clusters of green and red table grapes without a second thought. Bu tin the late 1960s, deciding whether or not to buy grapes became a powerful political act. Ordinary Americans had once virtually sleepwalked through the supermarket; this quiet man with dark Indian features offered us the opportunity to help others by exercising the power of socially responsible buying habits. Farm workers had already been trying to organize a union for more than 100 years. Finally, in 1965 they began a bitter five-year strike against grape growers around Delano, California. Two and a half years later, in the hungry winter of 1968, with no resolution in sight, they were tired and increasingly frustrated.
Concerned for his people’s future, Cesar decided to ask for help.
He believed in the ability of all people to connect, no matter how different they appeared on the surface. He thought that if people in communities
throughout the nation knew about the needless suffering of farm workers, they would rise to the occasion and do what they could to help. Taking a bold leap of faith, Cesar invited consumers across North America to join in solidarity with his United Farm Workers (UFW). He asked them to send a message to the grape growers by boycotting California table grapes. The boycott began slowly, but it built steadily over the next couple of years. First, California, then the rest of the nation and even Canada joined in support of the strikers.
In the meantime, some of the strikers had become understandably impatient to see the results. They had already waited so long, and to some of them, particularly some of the young men, the boycott must have seemed too little, too late. There began murmurings of violence; some of them wanted to strike back at the powers who had abused them and their families. By fighting back, they thought they could prove their machismo, their manliness. But Cesar rejected that part of Hispanic culture “that tells our young men that you’re not a man if you don’t fight back.” He decided the time was ripe for a powerful lesson in non-violence, The boycott had been designed in the tradition of Cesar’s hero, Mahatma Gandhi, whose practice of militant nonviolence he embraced. From Gandhi, Cesar had learned the power of fasting as a way of drawing attention to injustice in the world. He announced that he was undertaking a fast, as an act of penitence, and as a way of taking responsibility as a leader for his people.
The fast divided the UFW staff. Many didn’t understand why Cesar was doing it. Others worried about his health. But the farm workers understood. A mass was said nightly near where Cesar was fasting at the Forty Acres, the UFW’s headquarters in Delano. Hundreds came, then thousands. People pitched tents nearby. They brought religious offerings–pictures and small statues. Farm workers waited in line for hours to speak with Cesar in his tiny room, while he refused interviews with reporters.
After twenty-five days, Cesar was carried to a nearby park where the fast ended during a mass with thousands of farm workers. He had lost 35 pounds, but there was no more talk of violence among the farm workers. Cesar’s message got gotten through. Senator Robert Kennedy came to the mass, he said, “out of respect for one of the
heroic figures of our time.”
Cesar was too weak to speak, so his statement was read by others in both English and Spanish. “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life,” they read. “The truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men.”
What followed was truly amazing. Cesar’s efforts connected middle-class families in northeastern cities and midwestern suburbs with poor families in the hot California vineyards. Motivated by compassion, millions of people across North America stopped eating the grapes they had loved so much. At dinner tables across the country, parents gave their children a simple, powerful lesson in social justice–by reaching out to those less fortunate than themselves. By 1970, the grape boycott was an unqualified success. Bowing to pressure from the boycott, grape growers at long last signed union contracts, granting workers human dignity and a more livable wage.
In the years that followed, Cesar used boycotts and fasts to continue to galvanize farm workers in their pursuit of a better life, and to gather support from ordinary Americans to aid them in their efforts. Though the first and biggest battle was won in 1970, there were others. In 1988, at the age of 61, Cesar undertook his last public fast, this time for 36 days, to draw attention to the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their children. His whole life long, he was devoted to bettering the lives of farm workers, a cause he never gave up.
By the superficial values many used to measure success in the 1990s, you would have to say Cesar Chavez was not very successful. He had to quit school after the eighth grade to help his family. He never owned a house. He never earned more than $6,000 a year. When he died in 1993, at age 66, he left no money for his family. Yet more than 40,000 people marched behind the plain pine casket at his funeral, honoring the more than 40 years he spent struggling to improve the lives of farm workers.
An all-night vigil was held under a giant tent before Cesar’s funeral at the Forty Acres, where his body lay in an open casket. Thousands and thousands of people filed by until the morning. Parents carried
newborn babies and sleeping toddlers in their arms. One farm worker explained, “I wanted to tell my children how they had once been in the presence of this great man.”
What was the secret behind such a remarkable display? A reporter once asked Cesar, “What accounts for all the affection and respect so many farm workers show you in public?” Cesar just looked down and smiled his easy smile. “The feeling is mutual,” was his simple reply.
Call to Action: Support the United Farm Workers of America and their non-violent work to carry on Cesar Chavez’s dream of dignity for farm workers across America visit:www.uvw.org