César Chávez (b. 1927–d. 1993) is recognized as an American hero, as evidenced by an official state holiday in California, the first for any Latina/o or labor leader. Reflecting his influence beyond California, several other states have established optional or commemorative holidays honoring his legacy as a labor leader. Though renowned for his role as a cofounder, with Dolores Huerta and Filipino leaders, of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union to secure fair wages and safe working conditions for agricultural workers, Chávez’s legacy also includes his formative years as a political organizer in California for the Community Service Organization. Known for his invocation of religious symbols as an organizing tactic and his advocacy of an ethos of nonviolence in the farm worker movement, Chávez is best remembered for his twenty-five-day hunger fast in 1968 as an act of penance to ensure nonviolence in the increasingly contentious grape strike and national grape boycott sponsored by the UFW and centered in the grape fields of Delano, California. A later, longer fast in 1988 called attention to the dangers to farm workers and their families from the use of pesticides in the fields. Although rooted in the California grape fields, Chávez’s organizing efforts and the UFW union reached well beyond that locale to encompass other crops and states, notably drawing the UFW into a territorial dispute in the 1970s with the Teamsters union in lettuce and grape fields. UFW membership peaked under Chávez’s leadership in the early 1980s but declined significantly in subsequent years, mirroring national trends of union declines, although some critics fault Chávez’s leadership tactics. Chávez’s life is the subject of many scholarly works, particularly emphasizing the 1960s Delano grape strike and the national grape boycott as well as his leadership style and organizing strategies.
Several of the most insightful biographies of Chávez were written mid-career and focus on the Delano grape strike, and they are compiled under the discussion of that struggle. Collected here are key works published after his death that span Chávez’s career as a political/community organizer and later as an iconic farm labor organizer, as well as the formation, rise, and decline of the United Farm Workers union that he cofounded. Ferriss and Sandoval 1997 is the most highly regarded of these biographies, accompanying a widely screened documentary on his life struggles and successes. Some of these works, notably Bruns 2011, Etulain 2002, and Griswold del Castillo and Garcia 1995, contain annotated bibliographies. Etulain 2002, Ferriss and Sandoval 1997, and Houle 2003 include essays from participants in the farm labor struggle and other authors. Griswold del Castillo and Garcia 1995 and la Botz 2006 situate Chávez within the larger urban Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s for political, economic, and social justice. Pawel 2014 is the latest and perhaps most comprehensive biography of Chávez, coinciding with the release of the motion picture Cesar Chavez (2014), directed by Diego Luna.
Bruns, Roger. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.
Part of a series on landmark developments in American multicultural heritage, this short biography has the advantage of spanning Chávez’s entire career to evaluate, however succinctly, his legacy as an organizer. Contains numerous references to relevant works and an annotated bibliography.
Etulain, Richard W., ed. César Chávez: A Brief Biography with Documents. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Part of the Bedford Series in History and Culture, this biography, true to its title, is brief but comprehensive. More valuable for researchers are the annotated bibliography and the inclusion of several essays on Chávez’s organizing legacy written by such participants in the labor movement as Fred Ross (founder of the Community Service Organization) and Dolores Huerta, as well as by Chávez and his wife, Helen.
Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Accompanying the documentary film The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle (1997) that aired extensively on PBS, this is probably the standard-bearer biography of Chávez, particularly notable for its inclusion of several guest essays on farm labor issues (such as the oppressive short-handled hoe) and historical events.
Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia. César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
Biography of Chávez notable for imbedding within the chronology of events the litany of values to which Chávez subscribed, as well as situating Chávez within the larger struggle for Mexican American justice and the Chicano Movement. Includes a chapter on the complex relationship between the union and Mexican immigrant workers, as well as a bibliographical essay of aid to scholars.
Houle, Michelle E., ed. Cesar Chavez. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 2003.
Contains an introductory essay supplying an overview of Chávez’s life, as well as essays and excerpts on his life work from various authors, many from other published works. Notable for inclusion of magazine pieces and a law review article, and for its inclusion of several speeches and writings by Chávez.
la Botz, Dan. César Chávez and la Causa. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.
Short but comprehensive biography that covers the life span of Chávez as a laborer and organizer and includes discussion of the Chicano Movement as well as extensive study and discussion questions for classroom use.
Pawel, Miriam. The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
This extensive biography spanning Chávez’s life is ultimately and necessarily more compassionate and sympathetic than her prior works (such as Pawel 2009 under Critiques) focusing mostly on the UFW’s decline. Pawel’s biography is among the most comprehensive, spanning Chávez’s early days with the CSO to his last crusade against pesticides, emphasizing both his multi-faceted strategies of organizing and empowering farm workers, and his shortcomings, particularly pronounced in her extensive treatment of his later years, which focuses more on dissecting his leadership failings than detailing the goals and achievements of the UFW during that time.
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