Cesar Chavez (born César Estrada Chávez, locally [ˈsesaɾ esˈtɾaða ˈtʃaβes]; March 31, 1927 – April 23, 1993) was an American labor leader, community organizer, and Latino American civil rights activist. Along with Dolores Huerta, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), later renamed the United Farm Workers (UFW) union.
Born in Yuma, Arizona, to a Mexican American family, Chavez began his working life as a manual laborer before spending two years in the United States Navy. Relocating to California, where he married, he got involved in the Community Service Organization (CSO), through which he helped laborers register to vote. In 1959, he became the CSO’s national director, a position based in Los Angeles. In 1962 he left the CSO to co-found the NFWA, based in Delano, California. Through this, he launched an insurance scheme, credit union, and newspaper for farmworkers. Later that decade he began organizing strikes among farm-workers, most notably the Delano grape strike of 1965–70. Influenced by the ideals of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, he emphasized the use of direct but nonviolent tactics to pressure farm owners into granting strikers’ demands. His activities attracted nationwide attention and were strongly promoted by the American labor movement, which was eager to enrol Hispanic members. 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.
In later life, he also became an advocate for veganism. Membership of the UFW dwindled in the 1980s and Chavez moved into real-estate development. He is also famous for popularizing the slogan “Sí, se puede” (Spanish for “Yes, one can” or, roughly, “Yes, it can be done”), which was adopted as the 2008 campaign slogan of Barack Obama. Although the UFW faltered a few years after Chavez died in 1993, his work led to numerous improvements for union laborers.
Chavez was a controversial figure. During his life he was considered a communist subversive by many farm owners and monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He nevertheless became an icon for organized labor and leftist politics, as well as for the Hispanic American community; he posthumously became a “folk saint” among Mexican Americans. His birthday, March 31, is a federal commemorative holiday (Cesar Chavez Day) in several U.S. states, while many schools, streets, and parks are named after him, and in 1994 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.