Looking Back: César Chávez, a Dedicated Life

César Chávez in 1982.  Photo courtesy of Ted Sahl Collection, MSS 1996-03-01 San Jose State University Library Special Collections & Archives

Image: César Chávez in 1982.  Photo courtesy 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.

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.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on San Antonio Street. The new church (left) was completed in 1967,

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.

According to the San Jose City directories, this house near Lincoln High School was home to César and Helen Chávez from 1956 through 1960.

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.

New Community Center (Update - March 2023)

As we prepare to celebrate Cesar Chavez's birthday on March 31, we might also celebrate the purchase of the family home by the local Amigos de Guadalupe Center for Justice and Empowerment. The city landmark at 53 Scharff Avenue (above) was purchased by the non-profit last year with the assistance of the City of San Jose and several foundations. Plans are currently underway to utilize the former home as a community center.

Further Reading in the California Room:

Request for Express Pickup:

The Crusades of Cesar Chavez book cover Remembering Cesar book cover Cesar Chavez, film, DVD cover Cesar Chavez book cover Cesar Chavez book cover Cesar Chavez: a biography, book cover The Words of Cesar Chavez book cover Cesar Chavez: Labor Leader book cover The Fight in the Fields book cover Cesar Chavez book cover Cesar Chavez: Crusader for Labor Rights book cover Who Was Cesar Chavez? book cover A Picture Book of Cesar Chavez book cover Harvesting Hope: the Story of Cesar Chavez book cover