The property in Keene, California, known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz (Our Lady Queen of Peace) (La Paz), is recognized for its historic significance to César Estrada Chávez and the farm worker movement. César Chávez is one of the most revered civil rights leaders in the history of the United States. From humble beginnings in Yuma, Arizona, to the founding of the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement, César Chávez knew firsthand the hard work of farm workers in the fields across the United States and their contribution to feeding the Nation. He saw and experienced the difficult conditions and hardships that confronted farm worker families. And through his hard work, perseverance, and personal sacrifice, he dedicated his life to the struggle for respect and dignity for the farm workers of America.
His faith, his passion for nonviolence rooted in the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi, and his inspirational leadership are best reflected in his own eloquent words: "When the man who feeds the world by toiling in the fields is himself deprived of the basic rights of feeding, sheltering, and caring for his own family, the whole community of man is sick."
César Chávez was born on March 31, 1927 to a Mexican American family in Yuma, AZ. In 1939, his family was forced to sell their farm and as a result they became migrant farm laborers in California.1 His sister Rita said "Most of the time, we were living under a tree, with just a canvas on top of us, and sometimes in the car."2 César went to many schools and faced discrimination based on his ethnicity and poverty. After a brief stint in the U.S. Navy in Guam, he relocated with his family to the Delano, California area and became a full-time farm laborer. The migrant laborers faced brutal working conditions and often suffered from back problems from using strenuous harvesting instruments. The laborers were poorly compensated and often cheated out of their earnings, worked long hours, had substandard housing, lacked adequate health care, were exposed to pesticides in the fields that they brought home to their families, and their children were often in segregated or substandard schools that lacked the resources to help them succeed given their migratory status.
From the early 1950s through the early 1960s, Chávez worked for the Latino civil rights advocacy association Community Service Organization (CSO) as an organizer establishing new chapters under his mentor Fred Ross. While working for the CSO, Chávez met Dolores Huerta, a fellow community organizer, and they became interested in working together to fight for better wages and working conditions for farm workers outside of the restrictions of the CSO, which focused mainly on citizen engagement to enhance social equality through actions such as voter registration and citizenship classes. In 1962, Chávez and Huerta formed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) when it joined the Filipino American lead Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) during the five-year long Delano Grape Strike. The UFW became the first recognized farm workers union accepted into the AFL-CIO in August 1972. The Union led boycotts and strikes, including the grape and lettuce strikes, and negotiated better wages and working conditions for farm workers with their large agribusiness employers. Chávez lobbied for immigration restrictions and reforms through the UFW since growers were recruiting illegal workers as strikebreakers.3
César Chávez became the charismatic labor and civil rights leader of the farm workers movement. He used networks established with those involved in the civil rights movement, as well as sympathetic church leaders, students, other organized labor unions, politicians, and liberal consumers to form a coalition that would support national strikes and consumer boycotts of farm products, such as grapes and lettuce. The goal was to force growers to contract with workers for better wages and working conditions as it was cheaper than dealing with the consequences of negative consumer reaction. Chávez adhered to the principles of nonviolent protest and action learned from Martin Luther King, Jr and India's anticolonial political activist Mohandas Gandhi. On March 17, 1966, Chávez organized a 300-mile march or pilgrimage from Delano to California's state capitol, Sacramento to gain public attention and support for the migrant grape worker's cause. The march ended on Easter Sunday, April 10, and resulted in Schenley Industries, one of the large grape growers, reaching an agreement with the AWOC and NFWA on April 6, 1966.4
As the grape strike and boycott against Di Giorgio began its second year in 1968, waves of violence erupted in American cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr and the perceived injustices concerning the war in Vietnam. Chávez began a 25 day fast to reaffirm the focus of the movement on nonviolence, at a time when volatile confrontations on picket lines were becoming more common. He drew much publicity and support, including a visit from Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who had investigated the Delano strike as a member of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migrant Labor. Chávez fought for political reform by testifying at the U.S. Senate, flighting at state legislatures, as well as organizing grassroots campaigns.
On April 23, 1993, Chávez unexpectedly died in his sleep at the age of 66 of natural causes. Tens of thousands of farm workers, supporters, and politicians came to honor Chávez at his burial at the UFW field office complex at Forty Acres, which is now a National Monument in the National Park System. Under the leadership of César Chávez, the UFW made a concrete difference in farm workers' lives by guaranteeing them the right to collectively bargain for contracts with agribusinesses. As a result of these agreements, workers were provided with water in the fields, portable toilets, rest periods, improved housing, health benefits, disability and worker's compensation benefits, pension plans, and protections against pesticides.
"We don't need perfect political systems; we need perfect participation." — César Chávez 5
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