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James T. KeaneMay 16, 2023
United Farm Workers union leader Cesar Chavez talks about union contracts with California grape growers on April 17, 1973, at a Capitol Hill press briefing in Washington. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Thomas N. Lorsung)

“It was the most famous reception of communion in California history.”

So began Antonio de Loera-Brust, a former O’Hare fellow at America (and current candidate for the Yolo County Board of Supervisors in California’s agricultural breadbasket) in his 2018 retrospective on César Chávez’s and Robert Kennedy’s activism on behalf of California’s agricultural laborers. “No other single Catholic moment touched on race, labor and politics in such a profound way. On March 10, 1968, at an outdoor Mass in the small agricultural town of Delano, Calif., the farmworker union leader Cesar Chavez ended a 25-day hunger strike by receiving the body of Christ,” de Loera-Brust wrote. The combination of religious faith and prophetic political action that marked Chávez’s hunger strike would become typical of many other moments in his long career as a labor organizer turned American icon.

America’s editors commented on the hunger strike on March 23, 1968. “Is it too much to hope that Mr. Chavez’s suffering may also inspire a change in those who are denying justice to farm workers and thereby creating conditions that invite violence? Practically all farm strikes have been caused by refusal of farm owners to recognize the moral right of their employees to organize and bargain collectively,” they wrote. A major issue was the continuing refusal of the federal government to extend national labor protections (including unemployment insurance, wage protections, age requirements and the right to unionize) to include farmworkers. “Nor if violence comes can the U.S. Congress escape responsibility,” the editors wrote. “It could very simply remove the chief ground for violence by extending coverage of the National Labor Relations Act to farmworkers.”

“It was the most famous reception of communion in California history.”

Born in 1927 in Yuma, Ariz., to Mexican immigrants, César Chávez was familiar with agricultural labor from an early age, as his family lost their property and became full-time farmworkers in California in 1939. Chávez graduated from junior high school in San Jose, Calif., in 1942, working intermittently in the fields himself, and two years later joined the U.S. Navy. In 1946, he returned to work as a farmworker, gaining his first experience of labor organizing in strikes against California cotton growers and grape growers in 1947.

In 1953, Chávez moved into full-time labor organizing, helping establish and grow branches of the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. (The organization also brought him into contact with Dolores Huerta, Chávez’s chief collaborator in many labor actions.) He served as the national director of the CSO from 1959 until 1962. His next goal? The establishment of a farmworkers union, the National Farm Workers Association.

“Cesar Chavez knew it would take several more years of intense organization and fundraising before his organization could mount a strike. But the N.F.W.A. was not afforded that time,” wrote Barry Hudock in a 2012 article for America. A group affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. began a strike in September 1965 “with little enthusiasm or funding. The N.F.W.A. could either watch from the sidelines or join the fight; after intense deliberation, Mr. Chavez chose the latter.”

That strike lasted for five years and included two years of organized grape boycotts across the country. In the midst of it came Chávez’s famous hunger strike. Finally, collective bargaining contracts gave the unionized workers significant concessions, including better pay, access to bathrooms and drinking water and restrictions on hours and overtime. Five years later, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act made collective bargaining rights for California’s farmworkers part of state law.

The various organizers and labor groups involved in the strike eventually joined together in 1972 to form the United Farm Workers of America. By this time, Chávez had become a national figure—and had gained some prominent enemies, including California governor Ronald Reagan and U.S. President Richard Nixon.

“[Dorothy Day] was here to declare her solidarity with the strikers, to go to jail with them and, as the representative of the Catholic Worker Movement to be a historical link with the nonviolent Christian labor effort in this country.”

He had allies, too, among them Dolores Huerta and many famous community organizers, including Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross. Another ally was one whose presence at a 1973 strike brought new energy to the picketing farmworkers: Dorothy Day. “Dorothy came to California specifically to go to jail with las huelgistas. Sitting in her straw hat on her tripod folding stool, with the New Testament in Spanish on her lap and Sister Felicia holding the UFWU flag over her, she had formed a quiet center of our marching line in front of Song's nectarine orchards,” wrote Johanna von Gottfried in a 1973 article for America. “She was here to declare her solidarity with the strikers, to go to jail with them and, as the representative of the Catholic Worker Movement to be a historical link with the nonviolent Christian labor effort in this country.”

“Cesar was motivated by two things in his life. First, he was a very religious person. And second, he was committed to nonviolence,” said Jerry Cohen, who represented the United Farm Workers for nearly a decade and worked closely with César Chávez, to Grant Kaplan in a 2021 America interview. “He believed that the only way to win was nonviolence.”

Chávez and his U.F.W. peers would continue to collect hard-won gains in labor actions in the years following, though his organizing efforts began to face their own troubles, in part because of Chávez’s own management style. Matt Garcia, whose 2012 book From the Jaws of Victory recognized that “Chávez’s leadership was sincere, often virtuous,” but nevertheless argued that “Chavez was also a deeply flawed autocrat, and these flaws were instrumental in dismantling the immense gains of the movement at its height, raising important questions about the American obsession to prefer legend to truth when anointing national heroes,” noted Timothy Wadkins in a 2013 America review.

César Chávez died on April 23, 1993. Today, his leadership, resolve and prophetic voice are recognized around the nation. In 2012, President Barack Obama dedicated the César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene, Calif. In 2021, President Joe Biden proclaimed March 31, Chávez’s birthday, César Chávez Day. Visitors to the Oval Office today can also hardly miss a 22-inch bust of César Chávez that sits behind Biden’s desk. Highways, parks and especially schools throughout the American West bear his name.

Unfortunately, such recognitions of Chávez have not been matched by substantial governmental commitments to the economic prospects and legal protection of the farmworkers whose cause he championed. Many of the gains achieved in 1975, including the right to a reasonable wage, vacation time, unemployment insurance and a modest pension, have been lost, and pay for California’s agricultural laborers remains far below California’s minimum wage. The nation continues to benefit from inexpensive produce—but it is still produce that those who grow and pick it often cannot afford.

As for that call from America’s editors in 1968 that Congress include agricultural laborers under the National Labor Relations Act? The editors were still calling for it in 2018, half a century later.

Visitors to the Oval Office today can also hardly miss a 22-inch bust of César Chávez that sits behind Biden’s desk.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week, in honor of Mother’s Day, is the 2021 Foley Poetry Contest Winner: “Raising Mothers,” by Preeti Vangani. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

The mystery of Thomas Merton’s death—and the witness of America magazine’s poetry editor

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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