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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

César Chávez, a couple of weeks before his death on April 23, 1993.  The civil and labor rights activist founded the National Association of Farm Workers in 1962, which would become the United Farm Workers (UFW) union in 1966.

— Geoff Hansen/Getty Images

En español | A new documentary and biography are in the works, and there may also be a new movie about César Chávez’s extraordinary life. But it’s his family — he had eight children and 31 grandchildren — who’ve done the most to keep the farmworker champion’s legacy alive.

They remember him as a loving father and grandfather, and an extraordinary role model who pushed them to achieve. They also tell how Chávez, who devoted himself to improving the life of farmworkers, tried to find time to spend with them by bringing family members along on marches and putting even the youngest grandchildren on picket lines and outside supermarkets targeted for protests.

“At the time this was normal to me because I didn’t know anything else,” says granddaughter Julie Chávez Rodríguez, 33. “It wasn’t until later in life that I realized my life was not normal.”

A Mexican American labor leader who used marches, boycotts, and fasts to fight for the rights of migrant farmworkers, César Estrada Chávez, born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, became a symbol of righteous activism. He emulated the nonviolent methods of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and with Dolores Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers, the nation’s first farmworker union, in 1962.

Like King and Gandhi, César Chávez beat the odds through sheer strength of will. And his magnetism and devotion to the cause impressed Americans of all stripes whose boycotts of grapes and lettuce persuaded growers to sign union contracts that protected farmworkers.

Chávez coined a powerful slogan, “¡Sí se puede!” — “Yes we can!” — decades before Barack Obama used it to help usher him into the White House; and, through life-threatening fasts, brought worldwide attention to the plight of U.S. migrant workers. The labor leader, who died in San Luis, Arizona, on April 23, 1993, would have turned 84 this year.

Next: A Call to Serve >>

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