Cesar Chavez visits Colegio Cesar Chavez in 1974, a year after the school opened in Mount Angel, Ore. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Cesar Chavez was one of the 20th century's most dynamic American social activists, waging an aggressive but nonviolent campaign for farm workers' rights that drew widespread support and gave people across the country a new appreciation for the origins of their food.
This issue came naturally to Chavez, who was 10 years old when his parents lost their Arizona farm amid the Great Depression, moved to California and took up migrant farm labor. Chavez had a front-row seat for rampant prejudice and injustice on American farms during the 1940s and '50s, but rather than feeling bitter or downtrodden, he saw adversity as a source of inspiration.
"We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live," Chavez once said.
After 14 years of farm labor, Chavez took a job in 1952 as an organizer for the Community Service Organization, a California civil rights group, and by 1958 he was its national director. He left four years later to join Dolores Huerta in founding the National Farm Workers Association, now United Farm Workers of America (UFW), the first successful farm-labor union in U.S. history. That led to his most famous work, a series of strikes and boycotts that won unprecedented protections for farm workers.
Chavez died in 1993, but his legacy is still remembered every year on his birthday, March 31. Cesar Chavez Day is now an official holiday in several states, and although it's not a federal holiday, President Obama has proclaimed it a day of "service, community and education." It's also being marked in 2014 with the release of a new biography film, "Cesar Chavez."
In honor of Chavez's 87th birthday, here are 10 interesting things you may not know about him:
1. He inspired Obama's "Yes, we can" line.
During a 25-day fast in 1972, Chavez and Huerta coined the slogan "Si, se puede," Spanish for "Yes, it can be done." It became the UFW's official motto and a rallying cry for Latino civil rights in general, and later inspired the phrase "Yes, we can" for President's Obama's 2008 election campaign.
2. One of his 31 grandchildren is a pro golfer.
Chavez and his wife, Helen Fabela, had eight children and 31 grandchildren. One of their grandchildren is professional golfer Sam Chavez, who plays on PGA Tour Canada.
3. A U.S. Navy cargo ship is named after him.
An array of American streets, schools and even a national monument are named after Cesar Chavez. But he also spent two years in the U.S. Navy, and since Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships are named after "American pioneers and visionaries," the USNS Cesar Chavez debuted in 2011.
4. He attended 38 different schools before 8th grade.
As migrant farm workers, Chavez's family moved often when he was young. That meant Chavez had to change schools 38 times before finally dropping out to help support his parents. But despite his own limited schooling, Chavez later advocated education as a means for social improvement.
5. He had a complex view of immigration.
Chavez opposed illegal immigration since the beginning of UFW, arguing undocumented workers could be used by employers as strike breakers and undermine the pay for legal workers. As public opinion about amnesty shifted over time, though, Chavez eventually softened his stance.
6. He lost support for meeting with a dictator.
Chavez was widely criticized for accepting a 1977 invitation to Manila by Ferdinand Marcos, a 20-year president of the Philippines accused of human-rights abuses and corruption. Chavez hoped to win support from Filipino-American farm workers, but by endorsing the regime also lost some allies.
7. He was interested in the anti-drug cult Synanon.
In his later years Chavez studied modern management techniques and group dynamics, including a strange drug-rehab program, "alternative lifestyle community" and religious cult called Synanon. The extent of his involvement isn't entirely clear, and Synanon was defunct by the 1990s, but according to biographer Miriam Pawel, Chavez's interest in the cult caused more conflict within UFW.
8. He turned down a job from JFK.
President John F. Kennedy reportedly offered in 1962 to make Chavez head of the Peace Corps for part of Latin America, but Chavez declined so he could continue trying to organize farm workers. That was the same year he and Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association.
9. He fasted for 36 days at age 61 to protest pesticides.
Under Chavez, the UFW helped secure union contracts that prohibited the use of DDT, required protective clothing to reduce workers' exposure to other pesticides and prevented spraying while workers were in the fields. He also fasted for 36 days in 1988 to protest pesticide use on grapes.
10. He was a vegetarian.
"I became a vegetarian after realizing that animals feel afraid, cold, hungry and unhappy like we do," Chavez once said. "I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom. It was my dog Boycott who led me to question the right of humans to eat other sentient beings."
To learn more about Chavez, see his biography from the Chavez Foundation or the PBS documentary "The Fight in the Fields." And for a look at the 2014 movie "Cesar Chavez," check out the trailer below:
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