There was no shortage of dramatic moments in the life of Cesar Chavez, the late cofounder of the United Farm Workers. In the struggle for dignity in the fields, he marched until his feet were bloody and fasted until he was faint. Once, he spent 20 days in jail for refusing to call off a lettuce boycott. Such sacrifices put his face on the cover of Time magazine and turned the farmworker campaign into an international cause, the likes of which we haven’t seen since.
This Cesar Chavez Day, however, I’d like to recall a quieter moment—and one that transformed the trajectory of his life. It occurred in San Jose, on the evening of June 9, 1952, when a stranger named Fred Ross showed up at his front door.
At the time, Chavez lived in an East Side neighborhood called Sal Si Puedes, or “get out if you can” in Spanish. And there was plenty to get away from. Many streets were without lights, sidewalks, or sewers. A nearby packinghouse dumped refuse into a creek, and when it rained the creek overflowed, flooding the neighborhood with toxins. Two years earlier, residents had gathered signatures asking the city to pave the East Side’s dirt roads. Nothing had happened. Mexican immigrants were meant to pick and pack the valley’s fruits and vegetables, and stay quiet. Sal Si Puedes was the embodiment of what Michael Harrington would call, in a decade’s time, the other America: separate, unequal, invisible.
Ross was a curious presence in the barrio. White and wiry, with movie-star looks and a poor grasp of Spanish, he seemed in need of directions back to the freeway. But he wasn’t lost—he was an organizer looking for a way in, hoping to build a statewide movement of Mexican Americans. A local nurse had passed along Chavez’s name as a potential recruit, though Chavez was initially suspicious of “this gringo,” as he later put it. At 25, he had enough to worry about as he struggled to support his growing family with part-time work at a lumberyard.
Two hours later, Chavez’s skepticism had been transformed into wide-eyed enthusiasm. In his short life, Chavez had seen plenty that wasn’t right. His father had lost their ranch during the Depression, and much of Chavez’s boyhood was spent on the road, picking crops under a scorching sun. The problems seemed vast, the only solution to buckle down, work harder, and rise above. But that night, Ross presented another option: Mexican Americans rising together. And he somehow made progress feel not just possible, but inevitable.
“Fred did such a good job of explaining how poor people could build power that I could even taste it,” Chavez told the journalist, Jacques Levy, years later. “I could really feel it. I thought, gee, it’s like digging a hole. There’s nothing complicated about it.”
Ross also came away impressed. “Chavez has real push, understanding, loyalty, enthusiasm, grassroots leadership quality,” he wrote in his notebook.