The plight of the Mexican-American farm worker was not born in a vacuum, but rather it was created by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. "This treaty guaranteed to all Mexicans living in the 'new' American territory a number of basic rights: full American citizenship, retention of Spanish as a recognized and legitimate language, political liberty, and ownership of property" (143). It was because of this treaty that the Mexicans would come in waves to the United States, seeking their fortunes like others before them, only to find the language barrier, a major problem. But to the agricultural business, it mattered not who the farm workers were, what color their skins were, whether they spoke English or not. What mattered was that the more people they had working the fields the better, because "surplus labor drove down wages" (Levy 43). Quite simply, it was a question of economics. The less money growers paid out, the higher their profits. When Chavez compared the mansions the growers lived in, to the shacks where the farm workers lived, he began to learn about economics (91).
While working for the CSO, Chavez's primary role was to register Mexican-Americans in order to give them the ability to vote. This position taught him how to organize people, and how to motivate them. Chavez learned about politics and the scare tactics used by the "Republican Central committee to intimidate the people that were voting for the first time" (104). He learned first hand about the importance of power structure and the struggles that ensue. With McCarthyism in full swing, he did not come out unscathed. Chavez realized that if he did something someone didn't like, he would be accused of being a communist--this was known as red-baiting (116-117). More importantly, Chavez learned how big a pull agricultural business had with state and local government. Even today, according to Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, "growers [are] greedy, [and] she recognizes their lobbying clout and influence with farm-state lawmakers" (Radelat 81). Similarly, Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), states that "the growers' argument that the nation's food supply is at stake resonates with both lawmakers and American consumers, who don't want to face scarcity or higher prices at the supermarket. 'Anything that jeopardizes the food supply [such as labor shortage] is going to be taken seriously' " (qtd. in Radelat 81).
Labor shortage during World War II qualified as a serious situation for growers because if they didn't harvest what they sowed, the food would spoil and they would lose money. This, in turn, would make the price of food go sky high--something the government didn't want because it had soldiers to feed. The solution was to acquire cheap Mexican labor (Valdes 118). But the Mexican government intervened. It insisted on protecting the rights of its citizens while in the U.S. Thinking an agreement would be just the thing, the Mexican and United States government signed an international treaty, known as the Mexican Labor Program. It was known as the Bracero Program "because they depended on the strength of their arms, or brazos, to earn their living" (Radelat 78). This program "permitted employers to hire contract laborers (braceros)" (Valdez 118) from Mexico on the condition that it would "ensure standards of recruitment, hiring, transportation, working and living conditions" (Valdes 118). What ensued instead was an under use of the Mexican-American farm worker, causing more poverty and driving down the wages even further because of fierce competition for work (Levy 130).
The fight against the Bracero Program would be Cesar Chavez's first fight while working with the CSO, and the turning point in his life. As he fought against the Bracero program, Chavez learned how to fight against the status quo by working the system to his advantage. He learned a valuable lesson on the power of the media, the impact of a march, the strength in numbers and the importance of maintaining peace throughout. It was only through peaceful means that he would be able to have the upper hand in his struggles against the grower and the government. It was a victorious fight for Chavez and the farm workers, but one that would be short-lived because they lacked the support of a union; this proved to Chavez what he had known all along--it was time to build a farm workers' union. On March 31, 1962, the anniversary of his 35th birthday, Chavez left the CSO to start the National Farm Workers' Association (132-148).
A big part of Chavez's philosophy, which he used to organize the union with, came from his deep religious beliefs. He learned a lot about social justice from Father McDonnell whom he had become good friends with early on. Even though Chavez was not very educated, he was encouraged to read great works, such as the Encyclicals (89). The first book written by Leo XIII in 1891, "contended that the rich had in effect enslaved the poor, and that every man has a right to a decent wage and reasonable comfort" ("Little Strike" 17). The second book by Pius XI, written in 1931, "criticized the economic despotism that results from 'limitless free competition' and reiterated the principle of a just wage" ("Little Strike" 17). These works prompted him to read books by St. Francis of Assisi and Ghandi. His mother's own philosophy was similar to that of Gandhi's philosophy of non violence--a philosophy that would become part of Chavez's struggle for social justice (Levy 18).
In one of many interviews by Jacques Levy, as Levy was writing the Autobiography of La Causa, Chavez states that organizing takes time, patience and belief in what one is doing. According to Reverend Jim Drake, head of the Migrant Ministry, "Cesar [was] never part of an act. [He was] a very real extension of his philosophy that human beings are subjects to be taken seriously" (163). Based on experience and through what he had learned about human nature, Chavez had developed his own ideology on how to build a strong union. He learned early on that "It was those guys who have little jobs, who protected their little self-interest." It was from this realization that Chavez made the rule: "There would be no more middle-class Chicanos in the leadership" (121). For this reason, when Chavez asked people to join, not only would he ask for their help, he would ask them for total commitment. He expected his organizers to be servants of the cause, to give up their jobs and dedicate themselves only to the cause (163). Chavez felt that only total commitment and true heartfelt belief in the cause would give them the strength and perseverance to overcome the challenges he knew faced them ahead. This ideology, coupled with the fact that Cesar never asked anyone to do anything he wouldn't do or hadn't already done himself, would be one that earned him loyal friends and critics as well. In one of his interviews, Chavez recalls thinking that it was "not beautiful being poor if you have no choice, or just for the sake of being poor, it's beautiful to give up material things that take up your time, for the sake of time to help your fellow human beings" (163). On September 30, 1962, with little money to speak of and a lot of faith, Cesar Chavez held the first convention for the National Farm Worker’s Association (NFWA). So that the farm workers could see the seriousness of his objectives, Chavez immediately created several services for Union members. In order to inform everyone, even non-members, of current, labor related, situations, Chavez created a newsletter called El Malcriado (169). Other services to follow were a death benefit program, a credit union and a co-op (171). Before the convention, Cesar and the original committee members decided they would need an emblem. It had to be something the people could identify with and easily make themselves--it had to have impact. Because Mexico's flag has an eagle on it, Chavez felt it would evoke national pride to see an eagle on the new union's flag. The eagle would be black with square lines set against a white circle on a red base. The colors black and red were chosen because in Mexico they mean a union and are used for strikes. The first convention was very successful. The flag was well received and adopted immediately along with the motto: Viva la causa! (Long live the cause!). Temporary officials were elected and a vote to organize farm workers was passed. Membership dues were set at $3.50/month (175). Even though the NFWA charged membership dues to join the union, many people did not pay. Some of them even took advantage of the services first and then would drop out claiming disinterest. When the union found itself low in money, it would hold "large fiestas, barbecues, dances and speeches" to raise money and sign up more members (178). Chavez's faith in the Mexicans' willingness to share what little they had, never diminished.
When Chavez wrote the constitution for the union, he studied other unions' constitutions, in order to develop one that suited farm workers' needs. Because of the fact that farm workers are a transient group, Chavez wanted "a very strong centralized administration" (176). Also, he decided that there would never be a local; they would not have geographical restriction on employment; there would always be consistency in the union; workers would have a local say so, and they would have a committee for each ranch. Each ranch committee would elect its own officers and stewards, thus giving the farm workers the ability to take care of their own problems. In addition to this, the farm workers would be given the right to hearings, trials and recalls, as well as the right for members to speak freely and to give testimony to congressional committees (175-176). Chavez always kept the farm worker's best interest in mind.
The famous or infamous grape strike that would last five years was initially not Chavez's NFWA battle. It belonged to the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which was comprised of Filipino farm workers, who were affiliated with AFL-CIO Union (182). When the NFWA joined the strike, it was to show support. Even though it was not his fight at the onset, Chavez received a lot of attention for it because of his tactics to stop strikebreakers. They would put out flyers that gave "Jack London's definition of a scab" (192) or they would put on "plays depicting the scabs as something awful" (192). Chavez believed in doing as much as he could to keep the pressure on as long as it was non-violent.
Non-violence had always been a way of life for Chavez and his family. It was something that his mother always preached to him (18), and something he had greatly admired about Ghandi. So when the Movement, as it had become to be known, started to demoralize, Chavez decided "to do something that would force [the farm workers] and [himself] to deal with the whole question of non-violence..." (272). Chavez followed Ghandi's teachings about "the spirit versus the body" (92) and fasted for 25 days. It was not a media ploy, and he didn't expect anyone to appreciate what he was doing. Deep down, Chavez felt that this was the only way he could show the strikers that he truly believed in non-violence and that he wanted them to adhere to his philosophy of it as well (273). Nevertheless, when Chavez came off the fast, he received a lot of media attention for it, partly because social justice was the political hotbed of the times and partly because Robert Kennedy was there with him when he received communion (286).
The 60's was a time of free speech, student activism, social awareness, and the civil rights movement. All this afforded Chavez a means through which he could make people aware of the farm workers' plight and the social inequalities they endured. He used speaking engagements to raise social consciousness and arouse interest in those that were activist inclined. On one particular day when he was scheduled to speak at the University of California in Berkeley, he had picketers deliberately get themselves arrested out on the ranches, so that he could use the story to their advantage and incite the politically militant students to help. Realizing the power of the media, Chavez reported every case of violence towards the picketers (194).
Chavez welcomed a cross-pollination of ideas. He invited "young people [from the south] who knew how to struggle non-violently" (196) to help their cause. The movement got volunteers from "the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student non-violent coordinating Committee who had been in the Civil Rights Movement [to teach about non violent tactics]" (196). Pretty soon, believers of the free speech movement were volunteering to help. The group was comprised of all social and economic levels, as well as people from different religious beliefs. All Chavez asked in return was that they came in without any hidden agendas and work strictly for the Cause. The Movement also had other backing. Singer activist, Joan Baez, whose roots are also Mexican "[did] so much for La Causa" (466). Dorothy Day, age 76, who had fought her own battles for social justice, went "on the picket lines at [one of the ranches]" (500). The union's biggest political support had come from Senator Robert Kennedy "a Democrat [who was] strongly committed to civil rights" ("Robert"). With him, the Mexican-American farm workers felt there was hope for change. "He was willing to take on the poor and make the poor part of his campaign" (Levy 290). It was their overwhelming rallying support that may have convinced him he should run for the presidential candidacy (286-287). Once Kennedy decided to run for the nomination, he endorsed the union's cause "in a clear-cut manner" (288). Chavez was asked to "endorse [him] and become a delegate for him at the Democratic Convention" (288). Unfortunately, however, after a victory celebration for the primary held in California on June 4, Bobby Kennedy was fatally wounded (290), and with him went the hope for strong support from the government.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Chavez's union found it so difficult to fight the grape growers was because some people did not see the growers as villains. Even though some of the growers were part of the big agri-business, others were immigrants that had come to the area in the early 1900's. They, just like the Mexican-American farmer workers, came to America for a new way of life and had worked hard for their accomplishments ("Little Strike" 19). They were no longer poor, and their money had clout; they (the growers) had the state and federal government on their side. Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, "...[called] the strike and boycott 'immoral' and 'attempted blackmail'... [while Senator George Murphy, called the movement] 'dishonest.' The Nixon Administration seemed ambivalent, putting forward legislation that would...give farm workers organization rights but would also limit their use of strikes and boycotts. The Pentagon...substantially increased its grape orders for mess-hall tables" (16). Not only did Chavez's union have to fight the growers for better working conditions, they also had to fight the government for laws that would allow them to use boycott tactics.
The economic boycott was Chavez's favorite method "to counter the grower. [He believed that it was his] most powerful non-violent weapon"(Levy 201). Chavez used it to raise social awareness. He began to send picketers to grocery stores to make consumers fully aware of their fight against the growers. At some point, the Movement added a new theme, as well as new supporters. He redirected the cause and included everyone who ate grapes as the victims. "Don't eat poison grapes" and "Don't feed your children poison" were the new themes, as seen and heard in a video put out to promote the boycott, but that "had [been] placed ..under injunction" by a California judge (Grapes). Pesticides and its effects to the worker, the consumer and innocent bystanders had become everybody's problem. La Causa no longer was about social injustice to the farm worker; it became a fight of the consumer as well--one that many could participate in merely by not eating grapes.
Chavez did not stop there, however. To prevent the growers from using "Europe as a dumping ground for the grapes they couldn't sell in the United States and Canada" (Levy 522) he decided to organize a European boycott. "Letters of introduction [were sent] to the top leaders in the European labor movement" (522). The plight of the farm workers was no longer some obscure struggle in a small farming town. Instead, it became a national and international symbol of social consciousness, so much so that the Pope granted him an unsolicited audience, while in Europe. "He [praised] Cesar for his 'sustained effort to apply the principles of Christian social teaching,' and for working with the American bishops and its Ad Hoc Committee on Farm Labor" (524). Having the Pope support La Causa, was perhaps Chavez's crowning glory. To him it meant that everything he had sacrificed for had not been in vain. It taught him that the problem of social justice was an ongoing problem everywhere in the world and that people were supportive of his cause. Chavez continued to self-sacrifice and fight via non-violent means for social change and against social injustice, until his death. His memory lives on as more farm workers continue to struggle for the same issues that plagued the union in the 60's.
There's an old Mexican saying: "Hay mas tiempo que vida" -- There's
more time than life. Chavez certainly proved that there is more time than
life, for he gave his entire life to La Causa in order to better the working
and living conditions of his people. It is a struggle that even today continues.
If Chavez knew nothing of organizing unions at the beginning, what he came
out with at the end was a roomful of invaluable ideas and lessons learned
on what to do to create more impact on a conscious level. His philosophy
of non-violence was what drove him to continuously re-invent La Causa.
According to Chavez, "non-violence has one big demand--the need to be creative,
to develop strategy...Non-violence takes time" (270) and time was what
Cesar Chavez was willing to give up for the sake of his people and the
migrant farm workers.
Works Cited Aguirre, Jr., Adalberto and Jonathan H. Turner. American Ethnicity, The Dynamics and Consequences of Discrimination. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 1998. Figueroa, Hector. "Mexican Workers In The United States: A Profile." NACLA Report on The Americas 30.3 (1996): 38-39. Flagg, Gordon, Beverly Goldberg, Leonard Kniffel and Tom Gaughan. "Cesar Chavez Headlines 'Right To Know' Mini-Conference." American Libraries 23.7 (1992): 555-7. No Grapes. Narr. Mike Farrell. Videocassette, United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, 1992. Levy, Jacques E. Cesar Chavez Autobiography of La Causa. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1975. Radelat, Ana. "Trouble Down On The Farm." Hispanic 12.1/2 (1999): 78-81. "Robert Kennedy." Encyclopedia Americana. 1983. "The Little Strike That Grew To La Causa." Time 4 July 1969: 16-21. Valdes, Dennis N. "Legal Status and The Struggles of Farm workers in West Texas and New Mexico, 1942-1993." Latin American Perspectives 22.1 (1995): 117-38. CESAR CHAVEZ A Farm Workers' Struggle LOLY BLOW Western Civ. II Dr. Kaloudis April 14, 1999