Updated: Mar 24
Cesar Chavez Day is a reminder of our values at Denver Inner City Parish, do you know his story?
Cesar Chavez Day is coming up on Thursday, March 31 to mark the birthday of the man we celebrate. Following the City of Denver's lead, DICP will be observing the holiday in one week on Monday, March 28. We don't often take the time to dive into why we close for certain holidays, but we feel very connected to the Cesar Chavez legacy. Here's the story behind that legacy and how we try to honor it in our community.
While Cesar Chavez is a giant in the activism world, not everybody knows about his accomplishments, his lifelong efforts to improve life for countless vulnerable communities, or even what he looks like:
Chavez was born near Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927. He was a second generation American, named after his grandfather who had come to the U.S. from Mexico in 1898 and started a homestead. When he was very young, the Great Depression hit and caused his family to lose their beloved farm and move to California. School in California was tough for Cesar because he would often get slaps on the knuckles with a ruler for speaking Spanish and had to deal with racism from both teachers and students. In eighth grade, Cesar dropped out of school to join his family in the fields so he could help support them, and experienced the injustices migrant workers and their families endured firsthand. The work was arduous, the conditions were dangerous, and the pay was next to nothing. His family and the other migrant workers suffered the brunt of the exploitative work, but couldn't turn to better options. After WWII, Chavez served two years in the segregated Navy and then returned home where he started to learn about St. Francis and Mahatma Gandhi. Cesar took inspiration from the way these leaders faced injustices similar to what he was witnessing, but they fought against it by nonviolent means.
In 1952, Chavez joined the Community Service Organization (CSO) to seek better treatment for the Latino and Farming communities. He hustled and accomplished a lot while he was there to lead a voter registration drive, and organized campaigns to fight against racial and economic discrimination. Within six years, he was the director of the entire organization, but he still wanted to have a meaningful impact on the farmer communities he grew up with. He knew that people had tried and failed to mobilize migrant workers, and if he could inspire them, they could accomplish meaningful change. He was also determined to help city people with privilege understand the struggles of rural workers and how they could help. Only ten years after he joined CSO he took money from his own pocket to found what would become United Farm Workers (UFW). With the help of other activists and organizers, Chavez led one of the most influential boycotts in U.S. history against Delano Grapes, raising awareness about the plight of harvesters and hitting the big companies where it hurt most without raising any violence. He went on to lead a march from Delano to Sacramento, and marchers walked a jaw-dropping 340 miles in total. Chavez also famously went on hunger strikes for the cause, one of them lasting for 36 days before the fast passed on to other public figures like Jesse Jackson, Peter Chacon, Carly Simon, and Danny Glover. When asked about his motivation to take such extreme measures, he said:
"Farm workers everywhere are angry and worried that we cannot win without violence. We have proved it before through persistence, hard work, faith and willingness to sacrifice. We can win and keep our own self-respect and build a great union that will secure the spirit of all people if we do it through a rededication and recommitment to the struggle for justice through nonviolence."
His achievements are extensive, but here's a snapshot at what all of his struggles, leadership, and grit accomplished:
Improved work conditions and pay for farm workers in California
Empowered underserved communities by founding health clinics, daycare centers, and a farm workers-only credit union
Pushed the California legislature to pass the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, the nation's only law on the books that protects farm workers' rights to unionize, pick their representatives, and negotiate with employers
Played a key role in creating federal legislation that allowed thousands of migrant workers to become legal U.S. residents
Lent crucial support to the LGBT+ Movement at a time when many of his own constituents opposed gay rights
At DICP, we proudly do all we can to pick up the baton and carry it forward in the spirit of serving the community. Though we are not an activism organization, there are key qualities that embody Cesar Chavez and his work that fill us with inspiration. Marc Grossman, Communications Director for the Cesar Chavez Foundation points out that "Cesar believed that the movement he founded had to be more than just a union solely concerned with improving wages, hours, and working conditions (although the union certainly did that). But it also needed to address crippling dilemmas farm workers faced in the community after they came home from work." When we decide our programming at DICP, we strive not only to provide resources that will address the issues low-income individuals and families are facing, but also to understand what is causing those issues and how our help will actually alleviate the problem rather than just feeding into the cycle of poverty. Chavez believed in community, and his work goes to show that people thrive when they are part of something bigger than themselves. Cesar Chavez Day isn't simply observed to take the day off, it's a day of service; a day to remember that helping people isn't just about improving circumstances for them, it's about empowering them and cheering them on in all that they can accomplish, and all we can accomplish together.
To learn more about Cesar Chavez, check out our list of sources below:
The History Channel's page on Cesar Chavez's biography
United Farm Workers' biography of Cesar Chavez