Cesar Chavez was born 89 years ago today. A labor and civil-rights activist who helped organize agricultural workers in California, Chavez has been rightly lauded for giving a voice to the voiceless and for summoning national support for the workers’ fight against powerful corporate growers. Yet his legacy is more complicated than that. A look through The Nation’s coverage of Chavez over the years—including one piece by Chavez himself—gives a sense of both the odds against which Chavez fought and, too, in one surprising piece from 1977, the limitations of his approach.
Chavez first came to national prominence with the Delano grape strike of September 1965. That action drew the attention of The Nation, whose editor, Carey McWilliams, had arrived in New York from Los Angeles almost two decades earlier and always kept one eye on California. The novelist and essayist James P. Degnan wrote about the Chavez and the strike in the issue of February 7, 1966:
For most of his 38 years Cesar Chavez, the quiet, intelligent and articulate Mexican-American who leads and inspires the striking grape pickers of the San Joaquin Valley, has been an agricultural worker in California. This means that Chavez, like the 500,000 other agricultural workers in California and uncounted thousands more all over America, has worked for an industry (in California, it is the biggest industry) that pays its workers about one-sixth the yearly income of other industrial workers, that recognizes no minimum wage, that offers no holidays, vacations, sick leave, unemployment insurance or pension plan, that grants no overtime, that regularly violates child labor laws, and that denies the right to bargain collectively….
Son of an Arizona landowner, farmer and rancher, Chavez came to California during the great depression, when his father lost his land. Like so many in that period, the Chavez family became migrant laborers in the Grapes of Wrath pattern. Cesar, his mother and father, his five brothers and sisters, lived in a succession of tents and hovels and trailers, surviving at times on $1.25 a day. “Usually we had shoes,” says Cesar’s brother, Richard, “but there were times—I remember in 1939—that we went to school barefoot.” As for school, the Chavez boys got more than most migrants of their time, they went through the 8th grade, after being in and out of more than thirty-two grade schools in their migrant life.
During World War II, Cesar Chavez served in the Navy. On home leave in Delano, Calif., in 1944, he attended the local movie house and was arrested for sitting in the “White Only” section. “Cesar kind of laughed off the local arrest,” says Richard, “what really hurt him was when he went back to his base and got company punishment, too.”
Throughout his life, Chavez has entertained one ambition: to help his people, the Mexican-American agricultural laborers, attain first-class citizenship. Between jobs as an agricultural laborer, he has worked with groups like the Community Service Organization—designed to improve the welfare of the Mexican-American poor—and with social workers such as Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross. Two years ago, Chavez organized the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), a group which last September, along with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC)—mainly Filipinos—began the longest agricultural strike in California’s history and perhaps the most important agricultural strike in America’s history.