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Illustration of a man carrying stick with a flag on his shoulders as farmers work behind him

Illustrations by Dave Shephard

History Makers: César Chávez

He fought for the rights of America’s farmworkers.

The year was 1966. A group of farmworkers set off from Delano, California. They were about to march more than 300 miles to the state capital, Sacramento. Why? It was a nonviolent way to protest the unfair way farmworkers had been treated for generations. Leading the charge was César Chávez, a man who dedicated his life to improving the lives of others.

Unfair and Unsafe

Chávez was born in Arizona in 1927. When he was 11, his family lost their small farm, and they moved to California. His parents became migrant workers. They traveled from farm to farm, depending on where they could find work.

As a kid, Chávez worked in the fields to help his family earn money. After he graduated from eighth grade, Chávez left school and began working full time.

Chávez and thousands of others spent long days in fields, picking avocados, peas, grapes, and other crops in the hot sun. Many didn’t have access to clean water. Most were paid low wages, didn’t get breaks, and worked in unsafe conditions.

Uniting Farmworkers

Chávez was determined to end the struggles farmworkers faced. In 1962, he co-founded a group that later became the United Farm Workers union.   

“It was all about fairness and respect,” says Paul Chávez. He is César’s son and president of the César Chávez Foundation. “He said, ‘Once they see us as human beings and respect us, the rest will follow.’”

Chávez also used other nonviolent methods in his fight. In 1965, he took on the owners of California grape farms. He encouraged their workers to strike, or refuse to work. He helped launch a boycott, convincing people to stop buying grapes. To bring even more attention to his cause, Chávez led the 1966 march to Sacramento.

“When he marched, he inspired people to go out and exercise their rights,” Paul Chávez says.

Ten years later, thanks in large part to Chávez’s tireless work, California passed
a new law. It allowed farm laborers to form unions and to bargain for fair pay and better working conditions.

A Lasting Impact

Chávez continued to fight for the rights of migrant workers up until his death in 1993. Since then, schools, parks, and even a U.S. Navy ship have been named after him. Eleven states, including California, celebrate official holidays in his honor.

Paul Chávez can think of another way to honor his father, who often said that you only lose when you give up.

“The best way to honor him is to make sure that his example is used in today’s struggles to provide inspiration and hope to people,” he says.

  1. What detail in the text helps you understand what migrant workers do?
  2. What are some nonviolent methods that Chávez used to bring about change?
  3. What is the section “A Lasting Impact” mostly about? What is another good heading for it?
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