No farm worker has affected the fields and the corporate boardrooms of California agriculture as Cesar Chavez has, and the nation’s farms will never be the same because of his charismatic and faith-filled commitment to improve the lives and the livelihoods of America’s farm workers.
I have known Cesar Chavez since that exceptionally hot San Joaquin Valley day in 1965 when he and his first small band of supporters began their table grape strike in Delano, a town whose very name would become synonymous with efforts to improve the lives of farm workers’ families across the nation. Delano is on that short list of towns and cities such as Selma, Ala., which mark turning points for the country’s poor and minorities.
Deeply rooted in his Catholic faith and its social teachings, everything Cesar did was underpinned by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every major initiative by the United Farmworkers Organizing Committee began with prayer, often an outdoor Mass celebrated on an irrigation ditch on some farm or ranch. Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe preceded every march or boycott demonstration. For Cesar Chavez, faith and prayer were at the heart of his 1960s efforts to organize farm workers into an effective labor union--an effort attempted several times earlier in the century, but never successfully. Cesar really believed that God was with him and his pioneering organizers. His message to the workers was simple and powerful: God did not intend for them and their families to live and work as human robots, devoid of the dignity and wages and benefits most U.S. workers took for granted.
Graced with an intense faith, Cesar Chavez early on adopted the path of nonviolent resistance for his movement. From 1963 to the end of the 1970s, I spent long hours--often days at a time--with the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Farm Labor, helping to mediate bitter clashes between the union and the growers, mainly in California, but also in Arizona, Texas and Florida. The constitution of the new farm workers’ union was taken directly from the Catholic Church’s social teachings.
Cesar Chavez’s various fasts were always in direct response to some type of violence that had occurred in the course of the movement. The spirituality that energized Cesar was genuine, not some contrivance. His vision always saw far beyond the immediate obstacle that he and his fellow workers so often encountered. His faith was deeply grounded in God’s word and promises, and like the prophets of old, he spoke truth and justice with penetrating words and images.
The spiritual boldness of Cesar Chavez’s leadership gripped the people of this nation like no other farm worker had ever done. For the first time in this century, most Americans became aware of the dreadful plight of the men and women who labor so tirelessly to put food on our table.
Cesar has now returned home to the God of justice whom he loved so intensely. But his words, initiatives and farm workers’ sandal prints will remain etched along the road that links California’s farms and ranches. May he rest in peace.