Twenty years ago today Cesar Chavez died in Arizona—the state where he was born. He was in Arizona doing what he did his entire life—fighting for farm workers. In this case he was participating in a law suit against a powerful lettuce company.
I had the privilege of working with Cesar in two parts of my life. First as a Volunteer in Mission for the Presbyterian Church when I worked for the farm workers in California and Chicago from August 1986 to October 1987; second when I left seminary to help out in California from June 1989 to August 1990.
Cesar was one of the most remarkable people I ever met. He never gave up fighting for his people. His resilience was a leadership trait I learned from him. He was resilient as he faced a system that was almost impossible to break. Until Cesar no one had ever successfully organized farm workers in California.
His fighting was always non-violent. In the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Cesar taught that social change could successfully happen when coupled with non-violent resistance. His boycotts threw fear into the growers of fruits and vegetables and the owners of supermarkets. I know—I saw the fear in their face when we would suggest a boycott. He taught middle-class America that change could happen through people’s pocketbooks.
His 36 day fast in the late 1980’s was one of the most remarkable acts of personal heroism I ever witnessed. I wasn’t working for the UFW during the fast, but shortly after got connected to his movement during my first year of seminary in New York City. My roommates and I organized fast chains at the school and passed out thousands of leaflets in front of grocery stores in Manhattan.
The movement Cesar began continues to this day. Farm workers all over the country continue to benefit from what he started.
On the anniversary of his death may all of us re-commit ourselves to helping and empowering low-income folks and in particular the thousands of farm workers who pick the fruits and vegetables that all of us enjoy.