César Estrada Chávez (March 31, 1927 – April 23, 1993) was an American farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW).
A Mexican American, Chávez became the best known Latino civil rights activist, and was strongly promoted by the American labor movement eager to enroll Hispanic members. His public-relations approach to unionism and aggressive but nonviolent tactics made the farm workers’ struggle a moral cause with nationwide support. By the late 1970s, his tactics had forced growers to recognize the UFW as the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in California and Florida. However, by the mid-1980s membership in the UFW had dwindled to around 15,000.
Chavez was charismatic: a self-taught rhetorical genius, he created commitment by inspiring well educated Latino idealists with undiscovered organizing potential and encouraged them to offer a liberating, self-abnegating devotion to the farmworkers’ movement. Claiming as his models Emiliano Zapata, Gandhi, Nehru, and Martin Luther King, he called on his people to “Make a solemn promise: to enjoy our rightful part of the riches of this land, to throw off the yoke of being considered as agricultural implements or slaves. We are free men and we demand justice.”
After his death he became a major historical icon for the Latino community, and for liberals generally, symbolizing militant support for workers and for Hispanic power based on grass roots
organizing and his slogan “Sí, se puede” (Spanish for “Yes, it is possible” or, roughly, “Yes, it can be done”). His supporters say his work led to numerous
Improvements for union laborers. His birthday has become César Chávez Day, a state holiday in eight US states. Many parks, cultural centers, libraries, schools, and streets have been named in his honor in cities across the United States.