Cesar Chavez snd Dolores Huerta, Salinas, California. Photo: Victor Alemán.
The legacy of farmworkers advocates like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta is everlasting and can be felt today as we continue to advance their work for the betterment of farmworker life. Their work has become the foundation for other organizations across the country to advocate for farmworker rights and protections. It’s been 28 years since Chavez, the farmworker rights activist icon, passed away, but his legacy prevails.
Chavez was born on March 31, 1927. A couple of years later, during the Great Depression, his family moved to California where they worked as farmworkers. After dropping out of middle school, Chavez joined the Navy for two years returning to work as a farmworker as well. He married Helen Fabela, who worked as a farmworker also. Together they had 8 children and 31 grandchildren. In 1952, Chavez became a grassroots organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO) – a Latino civil rights group.
Chavez eventually became the national director for CSO working alongside Dolores Huerta in civil engagement efforts such as registering new voters and fighting racial and economic discrimination.
In 1962, Chavez used his life savings to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) alongside Huerta. The inception of the association came after failed attempts to unionize farmworkers in California. Farmworkers were not covered by minimum wage laws and didn’t qualify for unemployment insurance.
Chavez was inspired by other non-violent pioneers of civil rights such as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although he was dedicating much of his time to civil rights efforts, his wife, Helen, was working in the fields to support the family and struggling to stay afloat.
With Chavez’s leadership, the NFWA led a 5-year strike against California grape growers with the assistance from Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) – a Flilipino-American labor group. The strike ended in 1970 and, five years later, California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act giving farmworkers the right to unionize and negotiate better wages and working conditions. Chavez led other strikes in 1972 after an Arizona law banned farmworkers from organizing and protesting and again in 1988 to raise awareness of the dangers pesticides present for farmworkers and their children.
Chavez passed away in his sleep on April 23, 1993. President Bill Clinton honored Chavez one year later with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Huerta played a vital role in the success of NFWA. One of her early victories for the association was securing Aid for Dependent Families and disability insurance for farmworkers in the state of California in 1963. Huerta continues to advocate for the working poor, women, and children. She’s the founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which advocates for the education rights of farmworkers. In 1998, President Clinton awarded her the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award and in 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
To learn more about Huerta, watch her PBS documentary “Dolores.” The documentary takes a look at the life of Dolores, who seems to stand in the shadows of Chavez, yet played such a crucial role in granting farmworkers’ rights. Not only was she “leading the fight for racial and labor justice, Huerta evolved into one of the most defiant feminists of the 20th century.” Her life and work continue to be remembered today and continue to inspire a generation of activists.
The legacy of the NFWA continues, presently called the United Farm Workers (UFW) which “actively [champions] legislative and regulatory reforms for farm workers covering issues such as worker protections, pesticides, and immigration reform.”
Vecinos exists and continues to serve the farmworker community of Western North Carolina because of those who laid the groundwork for us. Continue to support farmworkers by supporting Vecinos with a monthly donation, following us on Facebook and Instagram, and by buying produce from farmworker friendly companies. Make sure to subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter as well.