6 People Who Changed Cesar Chavez’s Life

In honor of Cesar Chavez's birthday on March 31, 'The Crusades of Cesar Chavez' biographer Miriam Pawel looks at six people who played key roles in putting the Latin-American hero in the history books.
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Cesar Chavez Photo

Cesar Chavez

Fifty years ago this fall, a strike began in the vineyards of Delano, California. The lengthy, bitter battle would catapult Cesar Chavez from a little-known community organizer to a household name. During the height of the strike, 17 million Americans boycotted grapes to help California farmworkers win contracts, which brought better wages, working conditions, and respect.

Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers union, has long since faded from public memory, yet he remains the preeminent Latino hero in this country in modern times. His birthday, March 31, is a holiday in several states and a day of service in several more. As the holiday approaches, here’s a look at six people who played key roles in putting Chavez in the history books. Each of these five men and one woman had achieved renown in their own sphere — be that family, church, or nation — before Chavez entered their lives. Only two are well-known, but each had a profound influence on the trajectory of Chavez’s life and legacy.

Juana Estrada Chavez

Cesar Chavez Parents Photo

Juana and Librado Chavez (Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)

Born in Mexico in 1892, Juana Estrada crossed the border as a six-month-old baby with her widowed mother. Juana was raised in Texas, California, and Arizona and grew up to be a strong, feisty woman, unusually independent for her time. She supported herself at various jobs, including work in a college dorm, before a relatively late-in-life marriage to Librado Chavez. On March 31, 1927, Juana Chavez gave birth to her first son. He was named after his grandfather, Cesario, and grew up on the Yuma, Arizona ranch that his namesake had homesteaded a few decades earlier. 

Juana, petite with long black hair, was the guiding force in the Chavez family, during the time they lived on the ranch and then the much tougher years after they lost the farm to tax foreclosure in 1939. The family moved to California and became migrant farmworkers. Juana Chavez made decisions, was the family banker, found shelter and food, and made sure her children stayed in school even as they followed the crops around the state. She governed the family with sayings and a strong moral and religious force. She drilled into her children the importance of helping others who were less fortunate and the value of sacrifice, lessons that her oldest son absorbed and would pass on to thousands of others.

Fred Ross

Fred Ross Cesar Chavez Photo

Fred Ross and Chavez. (Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)

In 1952, Cesar Chavez was working in a lumber yard and living in a San Jose barrio so rundown it was called Sal Si Puedes - Get out if you can. Then he met the man who would not only get Chavez out of Sal Si Puedes, but introduce him to his calling. Lanky, and partial to plaid shirts, Fred Ross was a talented community organizer who had come to San Jose to set up a chapter of a grassroots group for Mexican Americans, the Community Service Organization (CSO). From the day Chavez and Ross met, the two men impressed one another. The 25-year-old grasped the power of organizing and the possibility of using Ross’s tactics to affect change; the older man immediately recognized Chavez’s intelligence and leadership potential. 

Chavez volunteered to help on a voter registration campaign and then ran for vice president of the new CSO chapter. Ross arranged to put him on the payroll. For the next ten years, Chavez was apprenticed to Ross, learning to organize in communities around the state, setting up citizenship classes, fighting police brutality, lobbying for paved streets and better schools. The CSO was designed to empower poor people and teach them to make demands on a political system that had ignored Mexican Americans. Chavez learned from Ross, and from his victories and failures. He left the CSO in 1962 with clear ideas about what strategies he wished to replicate and what situations he was determined to avoid.

Father Donald McDonnell

Father Donald McDonnell

Father Donald McDonnell (Photo: Courtesy of the McDonnell family)

How many Catholic priests in the 1950s held masses in labor camps, wrote Spanish-language hymns, and organized a labor union for farmworkers? Father Donald McDonnell was one of four priests in Northern California known as the Spanish Mission Band – a unique experiment to minister to Mexicans and Mexican Americans, predominantly field workers, who felt alienated from the Roman Catholic Church. McDonnell literally built a church in the San Jose barrio, a few blocks from the Chavez home. He became Chavez’s teacher, filling in gaps for the young man who had left school after eighth grade. 

McDonnell shared books on Gandhi and St. Francis and gave Chavez papal encyclicals which supported the right of workers to join a labor union. McDonnell became a role model for the ways in which the church could be a significant and effective partner in a fight for social change. And he gave Chavez the theoretical underpinnings that would enable him to later pursue religious support in his quest to form a union for farmworkers.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

RFK Cesar Chavez Photo

Helen Chavez, Robert F. Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, breaking the fast, March 10, 1968. (Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)

New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy was already a national celebrity when he met Chavez at a hearing on farm labor in Delano, California. In March, 1966, Chavez’s union had been on strike for six months, and support was flagging. During the Senate hearing, Kennedy dressed down a local sheriff in a famous exchange: incredulous at the police treatment of innocent picketers, Kennedy advised the sheriff to use the lunch break to read the U.S. Constitution. His presence drew national attention and buoyed the spirits of the striking workers. 

Though their backgrounds could not have been more dissimilar, Kennedy and Chavez bonded over their shared commitment to social justice. Two years later, Kennedy returned to Delano when Chavez was ready to break his first lengthy fast. The picture of the two men as Chavez ended the 25-day fast became one of the most iconic images of the farmworker movement. Days later, Kennedy entered the presidential race. Chavez committed the resources of the union to help Kennedy in the crucial California primary. More than 100 farmworkers camped out in an East Los Angeles park and canvassed precincts for weeks before the election, turning out 100 percent of the voters in some districts. The vote helped Kennedy carry the state. Chavez left the victory celebration at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel early, shortly before Kennedy was assassinated.

Charles Dederich

Charles Dederich Photo

Charles Dederich

In the 1960s, Synanon was hailed as “the miracle on the beach” – a successful drug rehabilitation facility in Santa Monica. A decade later, Synanon founder Charles Dederich had amassed a small fortune, turned his organization into a quasi-religious cult, and created several regimented communes. He began to spend time with Chavez in the late 1970s when the UFW was at a crossroads. Chavez struggled to make his burgeoning labor union work efficiently. He resisted the transition from social movement to labor union, more interested in experimenting with communal living than administering a bureaucracy. Frustrated by internal splits and determined to keep control of the organization he had founded, Chavez was attracted by Dederich’s model and his advice. 

The Synanon founder, a charismatic con man, told Chavez how to get his troops in line: An obscenity-laden, encounter-group type exercise called the Game, where participants “indicted” one another for offensive behavior. Chavez brought the Game to the UFW and required the staff to play. The Game was divisive and emotionally traumatic, but it was also a symptom of wrenching growing pains for the UFW. Chavez remained loyal to Dederich, even after he was arrested in a plot to place a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer who had successfully sued Synanon. Dederich came along at a pivotal time and helped determine the direction of the farm worker movement in its later years.

Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown Cesar Chavez Photo

Gov. Jerry Brown walking with Cesar Chavez and aides at La Paz, the UFW headquarters, in 1975. (Photo: Jon Lewis/Farmworker Documentation Project)

A few years before he died in 1993, Chavez was asked if there were any politician he liked. The one man he named was Jerry Brown. Brown had marched with the farmworkers in the early years, then helped them defeat an anti-union proposition when he served as California Secretary of State in 1972. But it was Brown’s election as governor in 1974 that led to one of the most significant and lasting legacies of Cesar Chavez: The only law in the country that gives farmworkers the right to join a union and petition for elections. 

When he took office in 1975, Brown vowed to bring peace to the fields and to improve conditions for the state’s poorest workers. He put his personal prestige on the line to negotiate the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the most pro-labor law in the country. In the summer of 1975, hundreds of elections took place in the fields. Many farmworkers voted for the first time in their lives. Brown ran for president in 1976 and 1980 and for reelection as governor in 1978, and the UFW lent considerable support to all of his campaigns. The law stands today as one of the lasting legacies of Brown and Chavez.