Other Free Encyclopedias » Brief Biographies » Biographies: Katie Burke (1953–) Biography - Personal to Galeazzo Ciano (1903–1944) Biography » César Chávez: 1927-1993: Labor Leader Biography - Grew Up In Poverty, Risked Life Savings To Form Union, Began Hunger Strike, Pressured By Larger Labor Union

César Chávez: 1927-1993: Labor Leader - Grew Up In Poverty

workers farm migrant children

"A few men and women have engraved their names in the annals of change through nonviolence," Arthur Jones wrote in an eulogy of Chávez published in the National Catholic Reporter, "but none have experienced the grinding childhood poverty that Chávez did." Indeed, Chávez's ability to represent the interests of migrant workers so effectively was a direct result of his early life. Born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927, his earliest memories coincided with the Great Depression where, as one of five children born to farmers Librado and Juana Chávez, he experienced incredible privation. His parents, whose families had immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the wake of the country's political upheaval during the first decades of the 20th century, ran a small farm near Yuma until the Depression forced them out of business.

When Chávez was ten the bank foreclosed on his father, forcing the Chávez family to travel from farm to farm during the harvest season in search of work. In this manner they arrived in California in 1939, competing for back-breaking, low-paying jobs with thousands of other men, women, and children who lived in their cars or found temporary shelter in the tin shacks characteristic of migrant labor camps. Growing up in this type of life—working sometimes for as little as eight cents an hour and surviving the winter with no shoes and barely enough to eat—the Chávez children did not receive a regular education, and by César's recollection, he attended over 35 different segregated schools before abandoning his education after the seventh grade to work full-time. However, his parents gave him a firm grounding in the Catholic faith, which helped him endure and overcome the circumstances of his childhood.

At a Glance . . .

Born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona; died April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona; married; eight children. Education: Attended public schools until age 12. Religion: Roman Catholic. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1944-45.

Career: Community Service Organization, field operative, then state director, 1952-62; National Farm Workers Association (later United Farm Workers Operations Committee), founder and director, 1962-93.

In 1939 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began to send union organizers out into the fields near San Jose, California, where Chávez and his family worked, in an attempt to organize the region's dried-fruit industry workers. Librado Chávez and his brother risked their jobs and courageously joined other workers in picket lines. Although the CIO's efforts ultimately failed, Librado's belief in the power of workers banding together to improve their lot inspired his son, who joined the National Agricultural Workers Union in 1946. Because of the itinerant habits, grueling hours, and fear of reprisals endured by migrant workers, this union joined with several other agricultural labor unions in unsuccessful efforts to achieve solidarity among farm workers.

During World War II Chávez joined the U.S. Navy and spent two years in the service. In 1945 he returned to California and to his life as a migrant worker. Three years later, at age 21, he married Helen Fabela, with whom he had eight children. Determined to break with his migrant past, Chávez put down roots in Delano and worked at local farms.

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