Speech at Graham Memorial Chapel, (1 February 1973) St.Louis, MO

Context

César Estrada Chávez was born in Arizona’s North Gila Valley on March 21, 1927. Chávez was the son of farmworkers, Librado and Juana, and spent much of his youth working in the fields after the loss of the beloved family farm. Following the harvest from Arizona to California, Chávez was exposed to the harsh conditions of migratory labor and the rampant discrimination that Mexican farmworkers faced. At an early age, Chávez learned about the tactics of organizing from his mother, Juana, who showed him how to create community and care for others. Chávez eventually became the Executive Director of the Community Service Organization (CSO). At the CSO, he worked with renowned activists, Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross, to protect voting rights for Mexican immigrants in particular.1 But the CSO’s lack of attention to farmworker needs propelled him to resign in Spring 1962, launching instead the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).2 Chávez moved his wife, Helen, and their eight children, from Santa Barbara to Delano, where they mobilized the farmworker movement, el moviemento, forever changing the agricultural landscape of California.

Building on his predecessors’ legacies, Chávez partnered with farmworker activist Dolores Huerta. Together, they created the NWFA to adequately address the vast needs of farmworkers and their families.3 Huerta was an experienced organizer and had co-founded the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in 1959 that attracted membership from mostly Filipino farmworkers. In 1964, Huerta left AWOC to join Chávez at the NFWA in order to better organize Mexican farmworkers.4

In 1965, the Delano grape strikes would put in motion the merger of AWOC and NFWA to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). Under the leadership of Larry Itliong, AWOC initially organized a strike of Filipino grape pickers in Delano for an increase in wages. Itliong approached Chávez to support the strike and prevent Chicano workers from being hired as “scabs,” or strikebreakers, who cross the picket lines to work. Chavez had strong reservations on aligning with such a young organization, but on September 16, 1965, the NFWA voted to join AWOC’s efforts, significantly strengthening the numbers and diversity of the workers on strike.5

While strikers picketed and recruited in the fields, Chávez developed a rhetorical career that would capture public attention, eventually leading to a global boycott of grapes. In March 1966, Chávez and 70 other strikers walked 340 miles from Delano to Sacramento, the California state capital, to pressure the Schenley corporation, a major grape grower, to sign a union contract. Along the march route, NFWA members recruited tens of thousands of supporters and generated national media coverage. In his speeches, Chávez urged people everywhere to support the farmworkers by boycotting non-union grapes. Union volunteers traveled to cities across the country to picket grocers selling non-union grapes and encourage union-friendly groups to publicly join the boycott.6 With so much pressure mounting, the growers eventually conceded to a temporary contract, modestly increasing wages and modestly increasing profits on grapes picked. However, the success of the strike only fed the confidence of farmworkers, instilling faith in the possibility of a union. One year after their first joint efforts as partner organizations, the NFWA and AWOC merged to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) on August 22, 1966.7

In the early 1970s, Chávez and the UFW were once again drawn into confrontation with growers in the Salinas Valley over contracts with lechugeros, or lettuce cutters. Corporate growers were alarmed by the strength of the farmworkers movement and attempted to suppress any efforts that would legalize the farmworkers’ right to organize. The UFW had won key contracts with grape growers and improved the lives of grape pickers throughout California without a law to enforce their rights. The UFW facilitated a strike of lechugeros and a national boycott of lettuce beginning in 1970.8

This speech by Chávez was delivered on February 1, 1973, at Graham Memorial Chapel on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Chávez’s speech is typical of his rhetorical career. Chávez was not a fiery speaker, but rather unpretentious and soft-spoken. He was modest to the point of using self-deprecating humor and projecting a persona that aimed to identify with his audiences. The Catholic Church provided Chávez’s moral grounding for his ideas and his resolute commitment to non-violence. Chávez’s goal was to help audiences identify with the movement, and build their confidence so that they felt empowered not just to join, but to lead and organize as well. He used plain speech to articulate the goals of the movement in a way that his audiences understood by making clear that his experiences reflected their experiences.9 In the months following this speech, the UFW would endure vicious and violent attacks by the Teamsters resulting in multiple deaths and thousands of arrests.10 The Teamsters worked with growers to fight unionization efforts and create contracts with laborers that would preserve grower profits. Between 1973 and 1975, millions of Americans would boycott non-union grapes and lettuce. In his dress, speech, and actions, Chávez embodied the life and views of Chicano people, cultivating his identity as the “Father of all Chicanos.”11 Chávez died in his sleep on April 22, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona.12

Endnotes

  1. Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997), 37-68.
  2. Peter Mathiessen, Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969, 2014).
  3. Ferriss and Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields, 67.
  4. Ibid., 70-72.
  5. Ibid., 87-88.
  6. John C. Hammerback and Richard J. Jensen, The Rhetorical Career of César Chávez (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998), 92.
  7. Ferriss and Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields, 87-88.
  8. Ibid., 174-189.
  9. Hammerback and Jensen, The Rhetorical Career of César Chávez, 11-24.
  10. Ferriss and Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields, 184-189.
  11. Ibid., 252.
  12. Ibid., 253.