Cesar Chavez: Legendary Labor Activist, Complicated Hero

With the recent release of Diego Luna’s new eponymous biopic, 'Cesar Chavez,' the legendary labor activist, is back in the spotlight. Explore the controversial legacy of the complicated hero who galvanized a movement to effect social change.
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Cesar Chavez Photo

Portrait of Cesar Chavez (Arthur Schatz//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Take a tour through Delano, California today, and you’ll discover a quiet farming community filled with endless rows of vineyards bursting in an array of greens, blues, and purples. It’s easy to picture such a town, with its smell of fresh cut grass, the sound of birds chirping and flies buzzing, and tractors puttering in the distance...

But did you know that Delano was a hotbed of revolution back in the early spring of 1966? Fed up with their poor pay and working conditions, a group of 100 people from the National Farm Workers Association embarked on a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in support of the Delano grape strike. With their aching backs and swollen feet, the protesters kicked up more than dust as their numbers grew to 1,500 strong with journalists swarming around them from across the country.

Each day, the workers would travel 15 highway miles and then rest their weary bodies at the home of locals who sympathized with their plight. It took nearly a month for them to reach Sacramento. By then, the national attention from the march had forced the vineyards to enter into contract negotiations with the union. It was a giant victory for the farmworkers, and a pivotal moment for their leader, Cesar Chavez.

Cesar Chavez Photo

Cesar Chavez with grape pickers in Delano, California. March 1968. (Arthur Schatz/ Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

It’s no surprise that Chavez is considered a national hero. The founder of the United Farm Workers, his name today emblazons schools, street signs, and monuments across the country. Countless pages of history books describe how the Arizona-born Chavez organized migrant farmers and national boycotts, underwent a 25-day fast and led the march to Sacramento.

However, like many heroic figures, Chavez, was not without controversy. In the 1970s, his actions became erratic and some critics even question whether they diminished his accomplishments.

With the recent release of Diego Luna’s eponymous biopic of Chavez, we decided to explore some of those controversies that make him such an unforgettable and alluring figure in American history.  

Opposition to Illegal Immigration

Although a leader in Latino civil rights, Chavez was occasionally a vocal critic of undocumented immigrants. His objection: illegal immigrants posed a threat to legitimate union strikes, since employers could recruit them as “scab” workers. In a television interview from 1972, he talks about the destructive impact of illegal immigrants on the labor movement and uses the pejorative term “wetbacks,” to describe the undocumented Mexican workers used by an oil company to break a strike.

Guest of a Dictator

The Delano grape strike from 1965 to 1970 helped unite Mexican Americans with Filipino Americans who had asked Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association to join their fight for higher pay and improved work conditions. Chavez’s union agreed to the partnership and the relationship between the two groups flourished. That goodwill was damaged in 1977, however, when Chavez toured the Philippines, as a guest of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who had placed the country under martial law since 1971. The move angered many Filipino farmworkers as well as human rights activists.

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Chavez, fourth to the right, leads the United Farm Workers Thousand Mile March, California, summer 1975. (Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)

Cult Influence

In 1972, Chavez relocated his headquarters to an abandoned hospital in California’s Tehachapi Mountains. He called the center La Paz and it’s said that once there he became engrossed by the teachings of Charles Dederich, the founder of the the Synanon organization—a rehabilitation community that later became a cult. One of Dederich’s more infamous methodologies was called “the game” and involved church members humiliating and exposing each other’s weaknesses. At La Paz, Chavez reportedly adopted this technique and used it on members of the UFW, in order to purge those perceived as being disloyal to the cause.

Waning Activism 

During the 1960s, Chavez lead the UFW through a series of historical victories, raising wages, improving benefits, and regulating workplace safety. At its height, the group’s contracts covered more than 100,000 farmworkers. In the seventies, the union had 50,000 members. Today, that number is down to 6,000. Reportedly, only 2 percent of farmworkers are unionized today.

Cesar Chavez Photo

Chavez holds a little girl's hand as he, along with his brother Richard (right, hands clapping) and other protesters, make their way to the UFW Convention, mid-to-late 1970s. (Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)

Although choices late in his career may have tarnished Chavez’s reputation, there’s no doubt about the value of what he left behind. His commitment to grassroots social change helped instill an entire generation with the belief that they could make a difference. And that transformation is long lasting. As Chavez said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”