March 31 marks the late Cesar Chavez’s birthday, the official Cesar Chavez Day as declared by the White House, and a holiday in several of our states. So who was Cesar Chavez? According to Dr. Martin Luther King, Chavez and King were “brothers in the fight for equality.” Chavez is a true American hero with a legacy in civil rights leadership, Latino and farm labor leadership, a community organizer, and a champion of non-violent social change.
Born in 1927, Chavez grew up outside Yuma, Arizona on his family’s small farm. During the Great Depression, the Chavez family lost their homestead and joined the large group of migrant farm workers traveling and working throughout California. During this period, Chavez was exposed to the social inequality and injustices incurred by migrant farm workers. This exposure led to his eventual work as a civil rights activist and Latino and farm laborers’ rights activist.
Cesar Chavez is credited with forming the first farm labor union, which he funded with his own personal savings. Chavez created the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America, on March 31, 1962. Over the next forty years, Chavez accomplished many historical gains for farm workers and established his farm workers union as the first successful farm labor union in the country. His commitment, pledge of non-violence, and sacrifice were novel practices in organized labor and he encouraged all who followed him to follow his example.
Chavez’s legacy is perhaps best surmised in his personal motto “Si se puede!" or "Yes, it can be done!” President Obama adopted this same motto for his presidential campaign. Using these simple words, Chavez showed ordinary people – namely farm laborers – that they were capable of achieving extraordinary things and that every individual’s job was important in working towards a larger cause. As stated by the Cesar Chavez Foundation: “As a common man with an uncommon vision, Cesar Chavez stood for equality, justice and dignity for all Americans. His Universal principals remain as relevant and inspiring today as they were when he first began his movement.”
At JIU we believe that Cesar Chavez’s motto – “si se puede!” – can be applied to each of our student’s educational journey. One doesn’t need to come from a special background, nor necessarily have special talents to achieve amazing things. The right attitude, hard work, and dedication can lead to the most extraordinary achievements, as is demonstrated by Cesar Chavez’s legacy.