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Remembering César Chávez

Fifty years after devoting himself to la causa, a look at the labor leader’s legacy of service

Beyond the UFW

With the 50-year anniversary of the founding of the UFW around the corner, attention is again being focused on the union, and on the life, work and legacy of César Chávez. Some, like Pawel, question the relevancy or effectiveness of the United Farm Workers — perhaps Chávez’s most visible legacy — whose membership has dwindled from about 70,000 active members in the 1970s to 27,000 today — a drop that’s in sync with the overall decline in union membership in the United States.

But, as Chávez himself said, the UFW was only the beginning; to focus only on the union would be, perhaps, to miss the bigger picture of who he was and what drove him.

According to Paul Chávez, his father was offered opportunities to lead a normal middle-class life and he rejected them. One such opportunity was to stay with the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group in Los Angeles. That job allowed Chávez to wear Brooks Brothers suits and drive a Volvo.

“He came home each night looking like Clark Gable,” Paul Chávez remembers. But his father left that job to organize farmworkers with Dolores Huerta, a move that hurt the family financially.

Another shot at an easy life came when the late Sargent Shriver, founder of the Peace Corps, asked Chávez to run its South American operations. “He asked us if he should take the job,” recalls Paul Chávez. “He told us, ‘We’ll have a nice, big house and maids.’” But then, Paul says, “He said, ‘No, we’ve got to stay here and help poor people. That’s our job.’”

Perhaps more telling is the understanding Chávez himself had of his work, as he summarized in a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club:

“From time to time, you will hear our opponents declare that the union is weak, that the union has no support, that the union has not grown fast enough. Our obituary has been written many times. … [But] once social change begins it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. … Regardless of what the future holds for the union, regardless of what the future holds for farm workers, our accomplishments cannot be undone. The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm.”

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