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César Chávez: 1927-1993: Labor Leader - Dissent, Changing Times Diminished Union Power

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Looking for a way in which he could continue to make a difference in the lives of agricultural workers, Chávez focused on health issues: the consequences of pesticide exposure on those people working in the fields. A four-year boycott of California-grown table grapes and a 36-day fast by Chávez in 1988 both helped focus national attention on irresponsible pesticide use, but times had changed. While some environmentalists supported the UFWOC's efforts, organizations such as the Sierra Club refused. The generation that had supported Chávez and his efforts during the 1970s was older and less liberal-minded now, and the boycott was not powerful enough to enact the changes Chávez desired. In addition, the UFWOC was increasingly embroiled in legislative issues, while its power struggle with the Teamsters had also drained its political energies. By the late 1980s union membership had fallen to 20,000.


Chávez continued to dedicate himself to La Causa for the remainder of his life. He died near the Arizona town where he was born, on April 23, 1993, at age sixty-six. As a testimony to the effects of his efforts, over 30,000 mourners joined his four-mile funeral procession six days later, many viewing him as "a national metaphor of justice, humanity, equality, and freedom," according to Richard A. García in Pacific Historical Review. Pope John Paul II, President Bill Clinton, and the president of Mexico also sent representatives to honor Chávez, who had become a symbol of not only the accomplishments of organized labor but also of Mexican Americans.


During the decade following Chávez's death, his efforts continued to be recognized. The César E. Chávez Foundation, founded in 1993 with the help of the Chávez family, is dedicated to promoting his life and the spirit of La Causa. 1999 saw the Texas House of Representatives pass a bill honoring Chávez and establishing March 31st (his birthday) as a state holiday. In 2001 the state of California honored him by marking March 30th as the annual César E. Chávez Day, the first celebration of which brought the state's governor, Cardinal Mahony, Ethel Kennedy, and other notables together in the labor leader's memory. In a New Yorker eulogy, novelist Peter Matthiessen wrote of Chávez: "Self sacrifice lay at the very heart of the devotion he inspired, and gave dignity and hope not only to farmworkers but to every one of the Chicano people, who saw for themselves what one brave man, indifferent to his own health and welfare, could accomplish."


Sources

Books


Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement, Harcourt, Brace, 1997.

Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia, César Chávez: A Life of Struggle and Sacrifice, Norman, 1995.

Kanellos, Nicolás, editor, Hispanic-American Almanac, Gale, 1993.

Levy, Jacques E., César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa, W. W. Norton, 1975.

Meister, Dick, and Anne Loftis, A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers, 1977.

Legends in Their Own Time, Prentice-Hall, 1994.

Taylor, Ronald B., Chávez and the Farm Workers, Beacon Press, 1975.


Periodicals


America, May 22, 1993, p. 4.

Christian Century, May 12, 1993, pp. 513-14.

Commonweal, June 4, 1993.

Nation, July 26-August 2, 1993, pp. 130-35.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1993, pp. 5-7, 28.

New Republic, November 25, 1985.

Newsweek, May 3, 1993; July 24, 2000.

New Yorker, May 17, 1993, p. 82.

Pacific Historical Review, February 1, 1999; May, 1994.

People, September 5, 1988, p. 52.

PR Newswire, March 30, 2001.

Progressive, July 1992, p. 14.

Time, July 4, 1969, pp. 16-22; May 3, 1993.


—P. L. Shelton

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