Why We Celebrate Cesar Chavez Day

This year, we celebrated Cesar Chavez Day on March 31. President Barack Obama signed a presidential proclamation on March 30, 2011, calling for Cesar Chavez Day to be celebrated every year on the activist’s birthday.

“Cesar Chavez saw the need for change and made a courageous choice to work to improve the lives of his fellow farm workers,” Obama said in a White House news release.

Chavez lived from 1927-93 and worked as an American farm worker. It was with his help and guidance that the National Farm Workers Association was founded. That organization was eventually changed to what it is known as today: the United Farm Workers (UFW).

With the help of Dolores Huerta, the UFW was created to help pay members of the working class. By 1970, the UFW convinced grape growers to accept union contracts. Chavez’s goal was to make people understand the suffering farm workers were going through at that time. Chavez wasn’t a one-man army. He trained other people who believed in the cause and sent them around to spread the message set forth.

On three separate occasions, Chavez went on a water-only fast for weeks at a time. He first did this in 1968 for 25 days, then again in 1972 for 24 days and finally in 1988 for 36 days.

Chavez learned very important lessons in life from his parents. His father showed him what hard work was, as well as the unfair treatment of farm workers. On the other side, his mother showed him what it was like to be compassionate, giving him the best of both worlds.

One of the most impactful strikes Chavez’s organization took part in happened in 1965. The Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) went on strike after grape growers cut the pay rate during harvest season. Chavez became the face of the strike as his organization joined with the AWOC. This was the first major action shown by Chavez and his group. This opened the door for other union leaders to ask for the UFW’s help.

When you look at the role Chavez played in the political world, all that needs to be looked at is the 1968 presidential race. Robert Kennedy came to California to break bread with Chavez following one of his fasts, and, in turn, Chavez committed his group to Kennedy for the primary. A primary he won in major part because of the UFW.

If it weren’t for Chavez, who knows where the farm workers would be right now. Had he not spent his life devoted to raising awareness to the suffering of his fellow workers, the whole industry might be a lot weaker today. Now every year, March 31 will be recognized as such, and I for one am proud to see it happen.

Thanks to UFW and PBS.