Eight states close school and government offices on March 31 for the national holiday celebrating the former leader of the late National Farm Workers Association (now known as United Farm Workers of America, or UFW).
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s strategies of nonviolence and fasting, Chavez cofounded the UFW with Dolores Huerta to advocate for better pay and safer working conditions for farm workers—many of whom identified as Mexican American and Filipino American, according to ufw.org. In 1966, Chavez led the UFW’s 340 mile march from Delano, Calif. to Sacramento, Calif. to allow peaceful collective bargaining agreements between unions and the state government. Chavez endured three historic fasts to protest his own organization’s violent behavior and bring attention to the UFW’s “La Causa.” His longest fast in 1988 lasted 36 days, which influenced celebrities, politicians and religious leaders to continue the fast for several days to raise awareness of the UFW’s work—decades before the 2014 ALS ice bucket challenge raised awareness and money for its respective cause.
According to recordsofrights.org, Chavez faced the greatest opposition from Delano, Calif. table grapes in 1968—a five-year-long boycott and strike protest—as well as pesticide proponents.
In a 1989 address to Pacific Lutheran University, Chavez considered “protecting farm workers—and consumers—from systematic poisoning through the reckless use of agricultural toxins” more integral to the UFW’s cause than any other aspect of a safe working environment. This is still a point of contention in today’s world.
“Monsanto is a company that does a lot of lobbying to get certain laws passed to allow pesticides to be used,” AP Environmental Science teacher Julie Effler said. “Touching” and “inhaling” chemicals is dangerous, as well as ingesting it via foods that are not organic.
Another issue the UFW continues to work toward in Chavez’s name is his stance on immigration. Chavez described illegal immigrants brought over by companies to break up UFW strikes as “wetbacks” and “illegals” in a 1972 KQED TV interview; he also supported President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 proposed immigration reform bill, according to NPR. The original bill converted illegal immigrants into citizens if they had lived in the United States since before 1982, on top of tightening border security and punishing employers who hired “scabs,” or illegal Mexican immigrants from Mexico, to continue working in protesters’ places.
“[Growers were] in need of workers willing to work for less money, essentially taking advantage of those wanting a better life for themselves,” history teacher Daniel Harris said.
To the UFW’s dismay, the section which put pressure on employers who hired scabs was eliminated to pass the bill as a law. However, Chavez’s past work in the UFW at the time had already made immense strides in farm worker’s rights. President Bill Clinton later gave a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in Chavez’s name to the influencer’s wife, Helen, in 1994, a year after his death.
Eight states touched by his existence (California, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin) celebrate Cesar Chavez Day by closing government offices and school buildings, according to time.com. However, Lewis Center students such as freshman Rachel S. would not mind another day off of school—despite her limited knowledge of Cesar Chavez’s life.
“If other states think it’s that important, they clearly must have reason for it,” Rachel said.
Senior Kayla Blanton does not agree.
“I don’t know who he is. It doesn’t make sense for us to miss school for it,” Blanton said.
Originally published in 2017 March issue of The Beacon issue for Olentangy High School