‘The love for justice that is in us is not only the best part of our being but it is also the most true to our nature.’
The Cesar Chavez story begins at time when California shops and restaurants frequently posted signs in their windows stating ‘No blacks, no dogs and no Mexicans.’ The year was 1965, and in the fields around Delano California, agricultural workers were picketing, led by the Mexican-American farm workers rights activist, Cesar Chavez. Chavez was a man of modest education and very humble means, but he developed a style of passive resistance protest that would prove impossible for the establishment to ignore.
The inspiration for this came with a debate speech delivered by presidential aspirant John F Kennedy in his first clash with incumbent Richard Nixon. Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, he said, like blacks, were being denied their constitutional rights as Americans. ‘We can do better’
This was the first time that Latino Americans heard their name mentioned in the context of civil rights, and in this shifting social climate, Chavez, Delores Huerta and others founded the Mexican American Farmworkers Association, later allying with other farmworker associations to form the United Farm Workers. In 1965, the Delano Grape Strike took this platform to a national level. The strike began on September 8 1965, and lasted for a full five years, and thanks in large part to a sympathetic public response, and the boycott of non-union grapes joined by an estimated 14 million Americans, grower in the end capitulated. United Farm Workers secured new contracts and improved pay and working conditions.
This, of course, was a major achievement in itself, but the success of La Causa, had wider ramifications. It infused a degree of pride and solidarity into America-Latino society, and broadened the concept of ‘civil rights’ to include not only blacks and women, but Latinos too, and potentially any group laboring under discriminatory laws or practices. Another personality to emerge from the Delano grape affair was Philip Vera Cruz, a Pilipino farm worker who was behind the formation of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Yet another was Delores Huerta, one of Chavez’s key organizers, who would go on to become a major name in the union organization of farm labor.
It certainly was a seminal moment in the wider Civil Rights Movement, and Cesar Chavez has since been acknowledged as one of the key activists of the movement.