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Home  > Work >Biography: Cesar Chavez, United Farm Workers

When John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, Cesar Chavez was 12 years old and already one of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in California searching for a better life but finding disillusionment.

Steinbeck's novel captured the American national conscience. But it wasn't until the tumultuous 1960s when wrath prompted Chavez to champion modern-day migrant workers. He established a nationally recognized brand that rallied a country around a cause and empowered the workers to take control.

Chavez was born March 31, 1927, on a small farm near Yuma, Ariz., that his grandfather had homesteaded during the 1880s. When he was 10, his father lost the land in a bad business deal and the family joined the ranks of migrant workers.

The poverty was paralyzing: overcrowded housing, no electricity, no bathrooms, no running water. When he finished the eighth grade, Chavez quit school to help support the family.

At 18, he enlisted in the Navy, but after his tour of duty he returned to California, where he met and married Helen Fabela, who shared his social concerns. The two of them began to teach the Mexican farm workers to read and write.

Teaching remained one of Chavez's central goals while building the National Farm Workers Association. "Some of the folks wanted to bring in experienced people to do this and that, " recalls his son, Paul. "He said 'No, we got to train people. We got to give people the opportunities to do work.'"

Richard Garcia, co-author of Cesar Chavez: A Triumph of Spirit, adds: "Chavez believed that if you gave every man and woman their sense of self, built up their self-esteem, built up their self responsibility, they could then rise to the level of leadership." In 1952, Chavez joined the Latino self-help Community Service Organization, where he rose to national director. But he wanted the CSO to focus more on the farm workers. When they refused he quit his first-ever regular paying job to found the NFWA.

Chavez had seen "a very definite need and proceeded then to develop a strategy to sell that need to a community that for the most part was completely disenfranchised and maybe not even ready for this," says Roberto Haro, research director at the Cesar E. Chavez Institute for Public Policy.

To rally the workers, Chavez realized he needed to develop a nationally recognized brand, and one of the first steps was to design a union emblem: A black eagle on a background of white and red. "The symbol was in many ways, like a major symbol for a corporation. It gave us a sense of direction. And I think that was a brilliant move on his part," says Chavez's brother, Richard.

From the beginning, Chavez's commitment to La Causa was complete, and he expected others to bring the same single-mindedness. Union officials got just $5,000 a year, but he was offering them a stake in the corporation. "[He] put a company together in which you offered the same kind of wages but you were going to get stock options," says biographer Garcia. "And those stock options were that you would succeed at the end in bringing some kind of new environment for the farm workers."

And this went for the workers who had little money but were asked to pay $3.50 a month in membership fees. "What he was able to offer them, and which I think is a very clever turn on being an entrepreneur, is it would profit them in the long run if they would join with him," adds Haro, "the payoff would obviously be very, very good for them."

But it was Chavez's shrewd use of the boycott that sparked the greatest changes and gave the corporation the national presence it needed.

Chavez always looked for alternative ways to sell his product. In 1966, when the workers had been on strike for close to a year with no sign of a resolution, he searched for new ways to energize the movement.

"He wanted to touch the housewife and get her to communicate this to her friends and to her husband and to the other people who she saw," Paul says. "And the grape strike, the secondary boycott was a way of doing that."

It was a calculated risk, and it paid off. By 1970 most table grape growers had signed contracts with the UFW. Chavez had become an icon. "You got the teacher, the motivator, the leader and above that almost like [Bill] Gates himself, a kind of icon of the movement linked onto the spirituality and soul of America. And that's why I think that for a moment, in fact, he was America," says his brother, Richard.

Cesar Chavez died in his sleep on April 23, 1993, at the age of 66.

Perhaps Chavez's greatest strength was his determination. His father, a big Oakland Raiders fan, once said that if he had been a football player he would have been a fullback. Asked why, he explained that when they hit him he would just get up, dust himself off and go for more, says Paul. "He refused to give up."

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