Who was César Chávez?

César Chávez was an American labor leader and civil rights activist who campaigned for better treatment, conditions and pay for exploited farmworkers across North America.

Born in Arizona to Mexican parents, Chávez spent part of his youth working as a fruit picker on farmland across Arizona and California. He saw first-hand how poorly the farmworkers were treated. Knowing things wouldn’t change until someone did something about it, he decided to become that someone.

Chávez organized the workers and co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) trade union. Together they used forms of non-violent protest such as marching, fasting, picketing, and boycotting to make sure their voices were heard and their situation was known. Eventually, the plight of the farmworkers reached the consumers, who had no idea how cruelly the people who brought them their food were treated. As a result of Chávez’s tireless work, laws were passed to improve working conditions for all laborers, such as higher wages, access to drinking water and handwash, rest periods, and health benefits.

César Chávez Fact File

This César Chávez fact file acts as a condensed biography containing information all about César Chávez:

Full Name Césario Estrada Chávez
Birthday March 31, 1927
Place of Birth Yuma, Arizona
Nationality American
Occupation Labor leader and civil rights activist
Family Helen Fabela Chávez (wife) and eight children
Education Laguna Dam School, Yuma, Arizona

Miguel Hidalgo Junior School, Brawley, California

Multiple other schools

Accomplishments Co-founder of United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union (1962)

Established union contracts for farmworkers requiring minimum wages, clean drinking water, periods of rest, health benefits, handwashing stations, and protective clothing against pesticides.

Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994)

César Chávez Biography

Early Life

Césario Estrada Chávez was born on March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona. He was the second child born to Librado and Juana Estrada Chávez, both born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. as children. He lived with his extended family on a farmstead along with his parents, sisters Rita and Vicki, brothers Richard and Librado, and paternal grandmother Dorotea. The family spoke Spanish and was raised in the Roman Catholic religion. Césario changed his name to César when the school he attended, Laguna Dam School in Yuma, Arizona, forbade speaking Spanish. He was nicknamed “Manzi” for his love of manzanilla (chamomile) tea, was a big fan of sports, and excelled at math.

Until the Great Depression, the Chávez family lived comfortably, but when the Great Depression hit and Dorotea passed away in 1937, the family was kicked off their land and farmstead, which was repossessed to cover her back taxes. Even as a child, César Chávez sensed the injustice of the situation. He moved with his family to California, where they worked as migrant workers, picking fruit and laboring in the fields. Chávez attended multiple schools over this time, moving to wherever his family needed to work and living in extreme poverty. He spent the longest time at Miguel Hidalgo Junior School in Brawley, California, but experienced prejudice due to his Mexican heritage and poor background.

When he graduated from Junior High in June 1942, he left school permanently with an 8th-grade education to work as a full-time farmworker. After two years, he enlisted in the United States Navy, making the rank of seaman first class. He was honorably discharged in 1946, when he rejoined his family in Delano, California, to work as a laborer.


César Chávez became involved in activism when he joined the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU). The NFLU called for a strike against the DiGiorgio fruit-growing corporation and asked their workers to join them, forming caravans outside the property. Chávez joined the striking workers and eventually led one of the caravans.

Around this time, César Chávez met his future wife, Helen Fabela. The two settled in San José, California, to raise a family while Chávez worked as an apricot picker and lumber handler. There he met Fred Ross and Father Donald McDonnell, social justice activists who became Chávez’s mentors and introduced him to the Community Service Organization (CSO) of San Jose. His involvement in the CSO introduced him to labor organizers and exposed Chávez to the concept of non-violent protest through the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, who Chávez idolized.

Chávez helped Ross set up CSO chapters across California and would raise funds through unusual means such as organizing carnivals, opening a rummage store, or selling Christmas trees. In 1959 he was promoted to the CSO’s national director and moved his wife and eight children to Los Angeles. As national director, he managed to secure funding for the CSO, conducted voter registration schemes, and extended the state pension to permanent residents. Finally, after three years, he resigned and moved back to Delano to create a labor union for farmworkers.

The National Farm Workers Association

In 1962, César Chávez collaborated with activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta to create their vision of a labor union: the National Farm Workers Association or NFWA (this later came to be known as the United Farm Workers labor union). The flag was designed to look like a black eagle framed in white on a red background, and their motto was “Viva la causa” (“Long live the cause”). Later, they adopted “¡Sí, se puede!” a slogan created by Dolores Huerta that has long since been associated with the movement.

The purpose of the NFWA was to organize farmworkers to fight for their fundamental human rights through peaceful and non-violent means. They initially ran the NFWA out of Chávez’s home and recruited members from the San Joaquin Valley. Its reputation spread so fast that before long, it had members from all across the country and doubled its income by its second year. Then, with financial support behind them, the NFWA agreed to take on their first organized strike on behalf of rose grafters. The strike only lasted four days, after which the employers decided to pay the workers higher wages so they would return to work. With this victory under their belt, César Chávez and the NFWA set their sights on larger opponents.

The Delano Grape Strike

The Delano Grape Strike was initiated by the Filipino-American farmworkers of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), who protested for higher wages and safer working conditions against the Delano grape growers of California. The strike was supported by César Chávez and the NFWA, who helped to organize the farmworkers into groups of picketers. The strike was met with skepticism, and many believed Chávez to be a communist, so much so that the FBI launched an investigation into his work.

César Chávez continued to gather donations and support for the strike. He found support from students and the working class and set up protest camps with medical centers, nurseries, and entertainment. It was then that Chávez decided the best way to tackle the Delano grape growers was to boycott their products, bringing the plight of the farmworkers to the consumers who bought Delano grapes. He helped to organize a 300-mile march from Delano to the state capital of Sacramento. Despite intimidation and harassment along the way from supporters of the employers, the crowd of marchers arrived in Sacramento in Easter, having grown from 50 to 8,000 along the way. Because of the march, they agreed with Schenley, one of the grape growers, and decided to end the boycott against them. However, they still had other grape-growing giants to contend with.

In 1967, the NFWA purchased land and turned it into their headquarters, known as The Forty Acres. Concerned that his followers would resort to violence despite the union’s non-violent approach, César Chávez engaged in a 25-day fast in 1968, drinking only water to reaffirm his and the union’s commitment to peaceful protest. This caught the attention of Robert Kennedy (who had previously attended a meeting with Chávez in 1966) and was present when he broke his fast three weeks later. Kennedy asked Chávez to campaign for him, and his successful activism was a massive factor in Kennedy’s victory in California. Tragically, Kennedy was assassinated during the victory celebrations in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. César Chávez was one of the pallbearers at Kennedy’s funeral.

Kennedy’s assassination came not long after the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. As concern grew for the safety of civil rights campaigners, Chávez called for a boycott of all grape products in California. The grape producers pushed back with threats of similar sanctions on other products, but by then, César Chávez had reached celebrity status, had books written about him, and had appeared on the Time magazine cover. Finally, in July 1969, César Chávez and the NFWA entered into negotiations with the Delano grape growers. Included in the union’s demands were safety measures regarding the use of pesticides, a new health plan, work safety, increased wages, and the promise to tackle issues at Delano High School, where several students (including Chávez’s daughter Eloise) had been disciplined for supporting the boycott. The Delano grape growers signed the contracts with the union on July 29, 1970, effectively ending the Delano Grape Strike.

Later Life

In 1971, the NFWA became known as the UFW (United Farm Workers). César Chávez continued his activism long after the end of the Delano Grape Strike, taking part in the Salinas Lettuce Strike (1970-71) and melon strikes, among others. The union headquarters was moved to a new base donated by a wealthy Hollywood movie producer who supported Chávez. Situated at the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains in California, the commune was named Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz (Our Lady Queen of Peace), though it came to be known as “La Paz.” After threats against his life, Chávez spent much of his time in the safety and seclusion of La Paz. However, he continued campaigning for workers’ rights until he died.

Chávez drew criticism for publicly denouncing the Vietnam War after his son Fernando was arrested as a conscientious objector. Because of his views, people often considered him to be a communist. He was also criticized for the cult of celebrity that surrounded him. Because of his previous work as a laborer, Chávez suffered from back pain throughout most of his life. He became a vegetarian in 1970 and adopted a diet to aid with his back pain. He was fond of animals, mainly German shepherd dogs, and kept several at La Paz, including Boycott and Huelga.

In 1988, César Chávez completed a 36-day Fast For Life before passing the fast on various celebrities and known figures. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Martin Sheen, the Reverend J. Lowery, Edward Olmos, Emilio Estevez, Kerry Kennedy, Peter Chacon, Julie Carmen, Danny Glover, Carly Simon, and Whoopi Goldberg all participated in the fast.


César Chávez passed away at age 66 on April 23, 1993. After a lifetime of campaigning, he died in his sleep of natural causes in San Luis, Arizona. He lay in state at UFW headquarters in The Forty Acres, where tens of thousands of people visited him before his funeral in Delano. At his funeral, 120 pallbearers carried his coffin, and he was buried in a private ceremony in Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz (La Paz), Keene, California.


A year after his death, César Chávez was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1994, which his family received.

On October 8, 2012, President Barack Obama established the César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene, California. Inspired by his words, Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign slogan, “Yes, we can,” was an adaptation of Chávez’s “¡Sí, se puede!”. In addition, he continued to honor Chávez by proclaiming his birthday, March 31, as César Chávez Day – a U.S. federal commemorative holiday in 2014. The day is observed by Arizona, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

How did César Chávez change the world?

As a result of César Chávez’s activism, the world became a much safer place for migrant workers everywhere. He fought exploitative employers and successfully won without resorting to violent tactics. His success stories have inspired people worldwide, from children to workers and even U.S. presidents!

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