This is a guest post by Vincent Acuña, an intern with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.
March 31 marks the birthday and national holiday of the great labor activist, César E. Chávez. A Mexican American farm worker who became a civil rights icon, Chávez is seen by many as occupying a space on the Mt. Rushmore of U.S. non-violent protestors. To me, his work not only brought labor strife to light, but also helped bring the Mexican American struggle to the nation’s attention. Studying primary sources related to the work of this leader can deepen understanding of the conditions that led to his fight, how he championed labor rights, and helped shape the development of Hispanic American identity.
Founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), Chávez joined with Filipino farm laborers in 1962, alongside Dolores Huerta in Delano, California, to improve farmworkers’ lives at a time when many migrant farmers made 40 cents an hour, were denied unionization, and lived in hazardous work conditions.
Teachers can show students images from the Dust Bowl to help them understand the conditions that helped spark twentieth-century farm labor activism in the southwestern U.S. Photos from these events, including the image of Mexican migrant children living in a labor camp, can give insights into the living conditions of farmworkers and their families in the 1930s. Use the Library’s primary source analysis tool to help students study the images and record their observations and thoughts.
Chávez started by organizing a nationwide boycott of grapes and a 25-day fast in the late 1960s, winning recognized union rights. The UFW “Boycott Lettuce” poster, incorporating the UFW logo, was created during a nationwide protest against lettuce producers. The protest resulted in an increase in wages and led to the passage of the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, recognizing the right to unionize. Students might research the symbolism behind the Aztec eagle on the UFW logo, and how it represented Mexican American identity in a time of heightened rights awareness.
The boycotts and other protests spearheaded by Chávez and the UFW were followed by similar protests in other industries. Students can examine the impact the UFW had by analyzing the “Boycott Farah Pants” poster. Encourage students to look for elements that might have been inspired by the UFW campaigns and by Chávez’s advocacy for Mexican American rights.
In later years, Chávez turned his struggle towards pesticide regulation by mobilizing a “Wrath of Grapes” campaign to discourage the use of DDT and other chemicals. By the time he died in 1993, Chávez had significantly improved the lives of farmworkers and inspired Mexican American people nationwide.
What do your students see as the legacy of Chávez’s work?