César Chávez on How It Began

Interview conducted by Luis Torres on April 20, 1992

César Chávez

César Chávez

In 1965, the fledgling National Farm Worker Association (NFWA) was drawn into an unexpected major confrontation with all the grape owners in the Delano area. That month, Filipino workers belonging to the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) struck against one of the major grape growers in the area. In a show of solidarity, Chávez ‘ fledgling union joined the AWOC walkout, but even this combined strike could not force the growers to capitulate. To put pressure on the growers from another angle, Chávez associated the farm workers’ struggle with social causes, which Blacks in the American South had done so much to advance. In April, 1996, the union organized a march from Delano to the state capital of Sacramento that emphasized the lack of social justice for farm workers. The effort, which proved highly successful in getting national attention, also served to inspire future Chicano Movement activists, who either joined or read about the trek. In an interview just before his death in 1993, César Chávez related the story of how the union became involved with Filipinos and the first contract with Schenley Liquors.

You had a pretty understanding family, I presume?

Oh, my wife. Without her I couldn’t have ever done it. Oh, yeah. I had eight kids, no money. In fact, besides the union, I had unemployment compensation checks, which when I went to register, I called myself a house meeting specialist in community development, and that was back in 1962. They didn’t know what the hell it was, so they couldn’t send me to a job because I could refuse it. No, that’s not my job, that isn’t my specialty.

Let’s talk about the beginnings of the strike first: The goal is to get contracts. What are the first steps that led to that initial strike?

Well, see, we were led into it; we weren’t ready. We didn’t have any money. That bridge I hadn’t figured out how we were going to do it. See, I told my wife, I said, “I can organize a huge organization of workers, but I don’t know if I can take them to a contract, and it is going to take ten years this early in the game.” The boycotts were already set in our minds because of Gandhi, because of Dr. King. I had done a lot of reading about boycotts, so we knew it was going to happen. We also knew we were going to break our strike. It was inescapable. So, how do you beat them after you break your strike with what we had to deal with? And so, on September 8, 1965, in the morning, a family who are members of our union came to [the] office early in the morning saying, “There’s a strike, there’s a strike.” Esther says, “There’s a strike, there’s a strike, the Filipinos are striking, but they’re not asking us to go out and strike.” I said, “Well, what do you want to do?” They said, “Well, we don’t know. We don’t feel good working.” I said, “Well, we can’t go out on strike; we have to talk to the members.” So immediately I called Dolores [Huerta] and the leadership we had developed in those conventions. We had a meeting that night, and we said, “What are we going to do? Well, we can’t, we got to support them. No, we’re not ready, but we got to support them. It would look bad if we didn’t.” So we worked all that week and called a meeting on September 16, at the church hall. We were astounded; we had like 6,000 workers. We were ready to strike, and we took a vote and we struck. And we said, “God will provide.” That’s how it started.

When you say, “God will provide,” you need to take care of essential economic needs of people on strike.

There was absolutely no way that I could. I had no money. I had no idea. All I knew was that they wanted to strike, the demand was that we couldn’t work while others were striking. That was more important to me than the money to come. So, food and clothing, we could get that, but pay rent and all that stuff, we knew we couldn’t get.

So, what happened?

Many people left. After a while they went to other jobs; some went back to work. Those who were greatly committed stayed for 58-and-a-half months. That’s how we beat them. When they say boycotting, I mean striking and they never left they were like preselective. These are the ones that we knew would stay, and then we added a few others. But, then in time we began to get money. We got a lot of food first, and then people later became more publicized to who they gave money. But our ranks began to deplete by December; they were shrinking. You see, I knew they were going to break the strike. Then you begin to shrink, and then people begin to fight among themselves I knew all that. We had already prepositioned ourselves to take care of that, so in February we called the march to Sacramento in 1966. What happened was that there was a lot of repression against us cops and all that stuff. But also lots of red-baiting and people are believing we’re communist. So we had to break through that, and we did. We went from Delano to Sacramento, and by the time we were at Sacramento, we had thousands of people believing us as workers. We wanted them to see that first of all we had numbers, that we were organized. We were doing something Mexicans love to do anyway, marching, and we had the Virgin with us. And people, see, people said no, no, they’re not communists, once they saw the church around us. That was the way we broke the red-baiting.

Did the red-baiting stop somewhat after that?

No, they kept doing it, but the people no longer believed them. The red-baiting stopped when the California Senate Subcommittee on Un-American Activities came to Delano in ’67. They had a hearing, and we knocked the hell out of them; that’s when it stopped. The leader or the chairman of the committee was a guy named Bill Coby, a senator from Madera in ’52. When I was doing the CSO [Community Service Organization] chapters, we had registered 16,000 Chicanos for the first time, all Democrats in those counties. When he ran, he won by about 500 votes. We got him elected, and he came to see me and sent me letters calling me a great American, and I saved the letters. And when we came to the meeting, I showed the letters to the committee and to the public, and we knocked the hell out of them.

Let’s talk about the march that ended up in Sacramento. It focused national and international attention on your work and the work of your colleagues, and beyond that [was] a metaphor for what was beginning to be called a Chicano Movement in general. Like it or not, you and your unit became representative of this whole social [movement.]

I’m not sure that that’s the case, but on the march itself, there was also, see, the community organizing. I had noticed the people who talked and made motions, and those were the ones that were active. The ones who just sat and listened weren’t that active. So, how do we get people to be active? Because our people won’t really talk a lot. So we started singing. We would sing because people would get up and sing, and that’s pretty participating. Then I noticed that we had a little march; one of our members died and we marched. I said let’s have an all-night velorio [wake] and let’s march. They liked it. And man, everybody was talking; it was like wow. So the march was a peregrinación, a pilgrimage, and it had all the elements. The symbolism and other things we needed to give the workers, like hope. Plus, now I read back in history about the teatros, so I had… now out of sheer coincidence, Luis Valdez came to see me. I said we have room for a street theater. El teatro played a great role in those days, but we still sang the songs that he wrote for us. All the songs we sang are his songs that he wrote for us. I mean songs that dealt with it. So we have the teatro, the Virgin, we had the flags, but see people are marching and they’re participating. They’re committing themselves because their compadre goes in the car and sees them in the march; they can’t deny it or the boss comes. Now, they’re committed, now they have got to support it because if not, then…

It’s a way of sort of publicly coming out.

Yeah, it was publicly coming out, and Dr. King had been very successful with that. So, anyway, it was a great experience for us. Oh, it was very difficult to march for 21 days, but it was like God-sent, it was so fantastic. It helped us a lot.

Copyright © 2000 by Arte Público Press. Reprinted with permission from Testimonio: A Documentary History of the Mexican American Struggle for Civil Rights, ed. Francisco A. Rosales (Houston: Arte Público Press University of Houston, 2000).