Speech at the National Press Club, (11 May 1973) Washington D.C.
César Estrada Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927, to Mexican-American parents, Librado Chávez and Juana Estrada Chávez. César’s mother was “a person of great faith” who modeled self-sacrifice and the necessity of helping others.1 Chávez’s father, Librado, owned a store and pool hall until debt and the Depression forced him to sell the properties, eventually causing his family with five children to lose their home. At a young age, Chávez recognized the injustices of losing his home and working in the fields when his family moved to rural California to become migrant workers.2 While the Chávez family initially had faith in the veracity of labor contractors, they quickly discovered that such promises were seldom fulfilled.3
One of Chávez’s earliest organizing efforts was when he joined the Community Service Organization (CSO) in 1952. The CSO helped Mexican Americans in Los Angeles through services like teaching English courses, filing discrimination claims, and registering voters.4 While working in the apricot orchards in Fresno, Chávez met and learned from Fred Ross—the founder of the CSO—and Father Donald McDonnell—a Catholic priest—who mentored and supported Chávez and the CSO. Ross quickly recognized Chávez’s leadership potential, commitment to the farm workers, and urgency to do something about the unjust institutions devastating the lives of migratory workers. McDonnell became a “friend and teacher” who modeled “servanthood” and nonviolence for Chávez.5 By 1959, only seven years after joining the organization, Chávez was promoted as the CSO’s executive director. In 1962, he devoted himself to creating an independent farmworkers union. When the CSO denied a pilot project for organizing farmworkers, Chávez announced his resignation from the organization.6
After leaving the CSO, Chávez and his family moved to Delano, California. There, Chávez began his grassroots labor movement. He was quick to criticize organizations like the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a primarily Filipino union that was backed by the AFL-CIO, because they were led not by the people working the fields, but by a labor chief in a remote location.7 Chávez knew that creating a union labeled as such would be short-lived, likely leading to firings and black listings. Instead he stealthily expanded the membership of the Delano group that grew into the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).8 Rather than duplicate their efforts during the grape strike, the primarily Mexican NFWA merged with the primarily Filipino AWOC in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFW for short).9
Early on, Chávez and the UFW used boycotts where people were sent throughout the country to target grape producers. He and the UFW first targeted grape producer Schenley Industries, which succeeded in forcing Schenley Industries to sign with UFW in 1966. Next, Chávez led a boycott against the DiGorgio Corporation, another major grape grower. But because other grape producers assisted DiGorgio, Chávez expanded the single-business boycott into an industry-wide grape boycott. Chávez gained national and international acclaim as the grape boycott continued. When the strikers were accused of violence during their protests, Chávez put his commitment to nonviolence into practice and began a fast that did not end until the UFW condemned the violence.10 Ultimately, the fast, along with Chávez’s angry speech at Filipino Hall announcing his fast, “renewed [the UFW’s] sense of hope and unity and restored the power of nonviolence.”11 The grape boycott ended in 1970, with the grape growers signing union contracts.12
Almost as quickly as the grape boycott ended, another crisis arose for Chávez and the UFW. The growers set up the Western Conference of Teamsters union in the Salinas Valley (where the UFW held significant sway) with the backing of the Nixon administration in order to diminish Chávez’s influence. While the Teamsters asserted that their new membership campaign was an honest effort, the farmworkers were never consulted on the new contracts that were drafted by the growers and the Teamsters.13 Chávez found the Teamsters to be as “dangerous” as labor contractors because they both oppressed workers.14 In the midst of this conflict, Chávez also organized a newly organized boycott against non-union lettuce.
Chávez delivered his speech at the National Press Club on May 11, 1973 in the face of these overlapping contexts: battle to curb the power of the Teamsters, battle to hold onto the grape contracts, and battle to boycott non-union lettuce.15 In spite of the pressures swirling about him, Chávez used humor to build support as he shifted attention from grapes to lettuce: “who had ever heard of a grape before the grape boycott?” . As John C. Hammerback and Richard J. Jensen observed, Chávez channeled this wit into “a legacy of devotion to things rhetorical.”16 Chávez continued organizing boycotts and UFW activities until his death on April 22, 1993.17 The UFW still exists today, but in a much weaker form after losing contracts to the Teamsters. Chávez’s rhetorical legacy nevertheless can be seen in the material ways he bettered the lives of countless migrant workers.
- Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 10-11.
- Ibid., 7-14.
- John C. Hammerback and Richard J. Jensen, The Rhetorical Career of César Chávez (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998), 13.
- Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, 26.
- Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, 28; Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997), 46-50.
- Ferriss and Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields, 60-63.
- Ibid., 70.
- Ibid., 65-75.
- Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, 139.
- Ferriss and Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields, 142.
- Ibid., 143.
- Hammerback and Jensen, The Rhetorical Career of César Chávez, 74.
- Ferriss and Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields, 160.
- Hammerback and Jensen, The Rhetorical Career of César Chávez, 82.
- The National Press Club was founded in 1908 and “has hosted presidents, kings, queens, prime ministers, Cabinet members, governors, members of Congress and influential leaders in business, entertainment, sport and society to share their views on significant topics and current events with the media and the public.” See “About the National Press Club,” The National Press Club, https://www.press.org/club/about-us/about-national-press-club?gclid=Cj0KCQjw5eX7BRDQARIsAMhYLP-ty9NhvIGpl0y0ufB2e5q3McNeij7IlYDuAZIMCIESexKeAeY1hykaAlFZEALw_wcB.
- Hammerback and Jensen, The Rhetorical Career of César Chávez, 195.
- Peter Matthiessen, Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), vii; Ferriss and Sandoval, The Fight in the Fields, 251.