Looking Back: César Chávez, a Dedicated Life
Image: César Chávez in 1982. Photo coutesty of Ted Sahl Collection, MSS 1996-03-01 San Jose State University Library Special Collections & Archives.
César Estrada Chávez was born in Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927. The family home and property was lost during the Great Depression, so they moved to California to become migrant farm workers. In 1942, Chávez dropped out of seventh grade to work in the fields full time so that his mother wouldn’t have to. He enlisted in the Navy in 1946 and served for two years. Chávez married Helen Fabela in 1948, and moved to San Jose to work as agricultural laborer. In 1952, he became an organizer for a Latino civil rights group, the Community Service Organization (CSO). He became the national director in 1958. In 1962, Chávez moved to Delano, California and co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta.
Image: Now a San Jose Historic Landmark, the Chávez family home is located at 53 Scharff Avenue in East San Jose. Photo ©Ralph M. Pearce.
In 1965, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee voted to strike against grape growers in Delano, California. The head of the largely Filipino workers union Larry Itliong, sought Chávez’s participation in the strike which was set for September. The strike proved to be largely successful because of Chávez’s cooperation. Soon after, both unions merged to become the United Farm Workers (UFW). By the late 1970s, Chávez’s non-violent boycotts and strikes compelled growers to recognize the UFW as the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in both California and Florida.
Image: Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on San Antonio Street. The new church (left) was completed in 1967, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy attended mass there on March 24, 1968 during his presidential campaign. On the same site is McDonnell Hall and served as the church from 1953 until 1968. As a chapel, McDonnell Hall was home to César Chávez's Community Service Organization. The hall is now a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Photos ©Ralph M. Pearce.
César Chávez died at the age of 66 on April 23, 1993. He received numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (posthumously), and his birth date March 31, is a state holiday in California, Colorado, and Texas. President Obama declared the date “César Chávez Day” and urged Americans to “…observe this day with appropriate service, community, and educational programs to honor César Chávez’s enduring legacy.” The historic plaza on Market Street in San Jose was renamed Plaza de César Chávez in 1993, and hosts concerts, festivals, and the annual Christmas in the Park.
Image: According to the San Jose City directories, this house near Lincoln High School was home to César and Helen Chávez from 1956 through 1960. Photo ©Ralph M. Pearce.
Further Reading in the California Room:
- The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: a Biography, by Miriam Pawel
- Cesar Chavez: a Triumph of Spirit, by Richard Griswold
- Remembering Cesar: the Legacy of Cesar Chavez, by Ann McGregor
- The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement, by Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval
- More materials on César Chávez from the San Jose Public Library catalog
- More materials on César Chávez in the California Room collections