Remember the UFW cofounder on March 31 by volunteering for a good cause
César Chávez in 1979, originally photographed for U.S. News & World Report. Marion S. Trikosko/Library of Congress Public domain
On March 31, Californians have the perfect opportunity to take a moment and consider the legacy of César Chávez, born on that date in 1927. Though it’s not a federal holiday like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in California, Chávez’s birthday has been an official state holiday and day of service since a bill introduced by state Sen. Richard Polanco was signed into law by Gray Davis in August of 2000.
In California, March 31 is recognized as an official holiday with state offices, schools and many private businesses closed. Some states have also designated March 31 as a holiday, and it has been marked as a commemorative day by President Barack Obama. For his part, current Oval Office tenant Joe Biden has a statue of the labor leader ensconced behind the Resolute Desk.
The holiday is unique because it encourages citizens to participate in an act of community service that pays homage to Chávez’s lifetime of work as an American farm laborer, union organizer and civil rights activist. With Dolores Huerta, he cofounded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers. Chavez died of natural causes in 1993 at the age of 66.
In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a proclamation declaring April 10 as Dolores Huerta Day. This year, April 10 will be her 92nd birthday. There is an increasing movement to elevate Huerta’s profile to be on par with Chávez’s reputation and recognition. Especially during March, which is Women’s History Month, watch for these hashtags: #UFW, #DoloresHuerta #DoloresDay, #UnionLaborers, and #Farmworkers.
Many cities in California plan events or ceremonies that honor Chávez and spotlight the many current-day issues he cared about, particularly in regard to migrant farm worker rights. Unfortunately there isn’t one single organization that spearheads events or volunteer opportunities, but check your city’s events page to see if there are any public events for the holiday. (The URL CesarChavezDay.org links to two San Francisco events: a holiday breakfast on March 31 and a celebration on April 9.)
Another idea worth exploring: Shortly before March 31, do a hashtag search on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook for #CesarChavezDay and see what events or volunteer opportunities pop up. Or create a volunteer event yourself by supporting a nonprofit group and encourage others to join you. Need some suggestions? Check out our directory of community groups, which you can peruse by topic. And in the column to the right of this article, find links to groups that specifically work to improve the lives of farmworkers and/or support sustainable agriculture.
Though there isn’t a centralized listing of César Chávez Day events, there are some places to go to learn more about the man himself and the movement he and Huerta began.
The Cesar Chavez National Monument is located in Keene, which is located at the very southern end of the San Joaquin Valley in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains. The monument is part of Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, the home and workplace of the Chávez family and farmworker-movement organizations. Attractions include a visitor center and bookstore, and the Memorial Garden in which Chavez is buried. Those who can’t travel to the center can explore it through various virtual tours, including an interactive story map that follows the historic farmworker march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966.
If you’ve got patience and the heart of an archivist, check out the California Department of Education’s model curriculum page on Cesar Chavez for reference materials on the man and the movement. Included are many pictures and documents scanned from the Walter Reuther Library archives at Wayne State University along with scores of other pictures and documents.
Looking for lighter reading? Published in January 2022, the graphic novel Who Was the Voice of the People?: Cesar Chavez tells the story of Chavez and the Delano Grape Strike. The book is written by Terry Blas, illustrated by cartoonist Mar Julia, and published as part of Penguin Random House’s Who HQ graphic novel series.
For more in-depth study, here are a few places to start. The UC Press blog offers an essential reading list for the holiday that includes Peter Matthiessen’s Sal Si Puedes and John Gregory Dunne’s Delano. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa is the only authorized biography. A more nuanced portrait can be found in The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, by Miriam Pawel, which the Los Angeles Times described as “a biography for readers who find real human beings more compelling than icons and history more relevant than fantasy.”
César Chávez Day is also an invitation to learn about the ongoing movement for farmworker rights. Many farmworkers have been left out of COVID relief efforts due to their undocumented status or lack of awareness, something the National Young Farmers Coalition is trying to remedy.
Farmworkers in California have good reason to celebrate the holiday this year thanks to the passage of Assembly Bill 1066, which provides overtime pay for workers on the same basis as workers in most other industries. Advocates praised the bill and noted the continuing recognition and protection for farmworker rights, a movement that Chavez and Huerta sparked.
Those efforts continue with a growing movement to have California farmworkers included in eligibility for the state’s Universal Basic Income pilot program, also called universal guaranteed income, which ensures participants a minimum salary in fields that are susceptible to conditions like the pandemic, drought and other hard-to-predict issues. (The program was pioneered in Stockton by the city’s mayor, political newcomer Michael Tubbs. Though he did not win reelection, the program’s positive results have gained attention as a strategy to alleviate poverty.)
The Cesar Chavez Foundation, led by Chavez’s son Paul Chavez, was featured in a Today segment in December 2021 that highlighted efforts to keep the Chavez legacy alive. The foundation is focused on housing and economic development, education, broadcast radio and preserving Cesar’s legacy.
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