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Why Cesar Chavez Is Still as Relevant as Ever

By Steve Holt

This article originally appeared on TakePart

Modern-day wage struggles, slavery highlight the importance of the late labor leader.

Over the last three centuries, our nation has built itself up to become the most productive agricultural society in the history of the world. It has done so largely on the backs of people of color, who have planted, picked, and packed the foods we enjoy every day—often for little pay and deplorable conditions.

Until César Chávez came along, farm workers were, for the most part, voiceless and unable to organize. The son of migrant workers, Chávez returned from serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II to work in the fields himself. He began to see the injustices that were occurring around and to him, and instead of staying quiet, like many of those who went before, he did something about it.

Workers pick tomatoes in the fields of DiMare Farms.

Workers pick tomatoes in the fields of DiMare Farms.

Chavez organized marches and boycotts and fasts to bring attention to the plight and power of American farm workers, and his quiet, inspirational leadership would eventually result in the first labor organization for farm workers: the National Farm Workers Association, which would become the United Farm Workers Union

Sunday is César Chávez Day, and this year marks the 20th anniversary of his death. His importance in humanizing the food system, experts say, cannot be underestimated. As agriculture became more mechanized and productive in the wake of World War II, many Americans didn’t realize hands were still involved in producing their food.

“Cesar pointed that out, brought the humanity back into the food system. That the food system was not just about industrialization – that people were involved,” says Sanjay Rawal, whose documentary film about farm labor, Food Chains, is in postproduction.

One of the farm labor movement’s earliest and most successful actions was a 1966 march with California grape pickers from Delano to Sacramento to demand higher wages. A subsequent call by Chávez for Americans to boycott grapes until workers were paid a livable wage garnered the support of 17 million consumers nationwide and lasted for five years. During these years, farm workers across the country were inspired to organize, and their plight made its way up to the U.S. Senate.

But while Chávez helped bring farm workers out of the shadows, their struggle remains. For his upcoming film, Rawal immersed himself in the lives of farm workers. In Florida, he found tomato pickers who bring home $40 for 14 hours of back-breaking work. Some of these same Florida tomato farms have, in recent years, been scrutinized for their use of unpaid labor—slaves, essentially—who were held against their will and forced to harvest the produce we see in many of our supermarkets.

Thankfully, in the mid-1990s, the Coalition of Imakolee Workers was formed to advocate for the plight of enslaved workers around Imakolee, Florida. Groups like the International Justice Mission took the issue head-on. And the visibility is working: In just the last 15 years, seven cases of forced labor slavery have been successfully prosecuted, resulting in over 1,000 people freed from slavery in U.S. tomato fields. And since it is likely there are still slaves working in the fields of our country, a campaign is underway that asks consumers to demand their grocery stores refuse to buy tomatoes picked by underpaid or unpaid workers.

“The grape of the 21st century is the Florida tomato,” says Rawal, alluding to César Chávez’s famous grape boycott of 1966. “We need to go into our groceries and demand that they not purchase tomatoes that were picked by slaves. Then we can change it. It’s really Cesar 2.0.”

Rawal adds that while labels indicating organic and fairly traded foods have been helpful, there should also be a label that let’s consumers know the workers who produced the food were treated fairly.

Chávez, who would have been 86 this year, would have supported such efforts on behalf of workers. Events and service projects are scheduled throughout the country this week to honor his legacy—especially in California, where it is a state holiday.

18 COMMENTS

  1. This is a great article about Cesar Chavez. Glad you brought it up to date by including the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers! They do such important work today! Cesar would have been proud of them!

  2. Caeser Chavez has done so much to organize farm workers, to empower their cause through hard work that inevitably had to be confrontational at the same time it built alliances. Tom Wolfe and others of his ilk can always polk fun and accuse the liberals of being "Mau-Maued," but being poor and being down-trodden has resonated through the US and the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Ancient Israel, Jubilee Year was celebrated by leveling debt- forgiving the poor for their debts.

  3. Cesar Chavez became relevant to me in those California days when I first learned about the grape boycott and became familiar with all the reasons why we should forgo buying those grapes. He remains relevant along with those who worked with him, and are still working, to advance the rights of those who pick this nation's crops and do this nation's labor.

  4. Able to inspire, lead & motivate a working class people speaks volumes of Chavez. As a Navy veteran, a 24 yearlaw enforcement supeevisor & father, I salute his faith courage & steadfastness., Thanks, Ken

  5. In this time of extreme greed and exploitation, carrying on the legacy of Cesar Chavez is as important as ever. He believed that no one should be exploited or voiceless, that all living things deserve respect and protection and that the environment must be retrieved from a dehumanized and destructive food system. That message, tirelessly exemplified in his service and non-violent activism, has never been more urgent. Let's get to work!

  6. “I became a vegetarian after realizing that animals feel afraid, cold, hungry and unhappy like we do. 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.”.
    ― César Chávez.

    “We need, in a special way, to work twice as hard to help people understand that the animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves.”.
    ― César Chávez.

    “Kindness and compassion towards all living things is a mark of a civilized society. Conversely, cruelty, whether it is directed against human beings or against animals, is not the exclusive province of any one culture or community of people. ”
    ― César Chávez.

    “Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well with others.”.
    ― César Chávez.

    “We know we cannot be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them — exploiting animals in the name of science, exploiting animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting animals in the name of food.”.
    ― César Chávez.

    “When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit our lives are all that really belong to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines the kind of men we are.”.
    ― César Chávez, The Words of Cesar Chavez.

  7. This is a great article about Cesar Chavez. Glad you brought it up to date by including the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers! They do such important work today! Cesar would have been proud of them!

  8. Caeser Chavez has done so much to organize farm workers, to empower their cause through hard work that inevitably had to be confrontational at the same time it built alliances. Tom Wolfe and others of his ilk can always polk fun and accuse the liberals of being "Mau-Maued," but being poor and being down-trodden has resonated through the US and the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Ancient Israel, Jubilee Year was celebrated by leveling debt- forgiving the poor for their debts.

  9. while at UCLA in film school in the 70's my roommate and I made a documentary about him during the riots, and bomb threats and went to San Pedro to film him speaking.. the day and night before tho we slept with the farm workers videotaping interviews and it was wonderful being with them. I wish I had the documentary now… It was a frightening time for everyone but so worthwhile.

  10. In this time of extreme greed and exploitation, carrying on the legacy of Cesar Chavez is as important as ever. He believed that no one should be exploited or voiceless, that all living things deserve respect and protection and that the environment must be retrieved from a dehumanized and destructive food system. That message, tirelessly exemplified in his service and non-violent activism, has never been more urgent. Let's get to work!

  11. I am the daughter and granddaughter of migrant farm workers. I worked in the fields as a teenager and into my 20s. I am a donor and activist for farmworker rights (human rights). There seems to be no end to the degradation and injustice brought down on farmworkers. From immigration issues, to lack of housing; from unfair wages and dangerous work conditions, to the poisons they are exposed to on our behalf; from no healthcare to little education available for their children; they've always been economic scapegoats. So I ask you all to NOT just request organic or pesticide free food but to truly revolutionize our well being and humanity on this earth, let us demand food free from human and animal slavery as well.

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