Agriculture is the dominant industry in the Central Valley, where the legacy of Cesar Chavez still hangs in the air for families of migrant workers across the state.
An icon in the Hispanic community, Cesar Chavez became the figure head of a movement that aimed to not only provide fair working conditions and pay for migrant workers of the 1960s, but to cultivate an awareness of an industry that had not garnered much attention before.
“His movement in 1965 and the next couple of years brought tremendous national visibility to the plight of the farm workers, not just through the press but through larger labor groups and unions within the U.S.,” said Samuel Regalado, professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus. “It also drew national attention for the first time due to visits from politicians like Robert Kennedy who would meet with Chavez. It put Central California in the national spotlight on a human rights issue.”
While the 1960s is often remembered as a civil rights period, Chavez’s efforts struck a chord with many young Californians who drew parallels between the struggles between whites and Blacks in the Deep South and the plight of the farm worker in California. As awareness and empathy increased among progressive youth it furthered Chavez’s goal of unionizing the farm workers to provide secure and fair wages.
“The farm workers in our region then were recognized as a legitimate union and now have resources and some clout,” said Regalado.
Prior to unionizing, the farm worker’s role in California was a contentious issue as producers had utilized laborers from Mexico through the federal Bracero Program, which temporally contracted manual laborers from Mexico during World War II to compensate for the smaller labor force as Americans left to fight.
Eventually, criticism mounted. Citizens felt that Americans were being deprived of jobs and for those who were working, there was pressure to accept lower paying positions that Mexicans accepted rather than risk being jobless. Chavez was a proponent of ending the Bracero Program in order to grant American farm laborers the security they felt they deserved.
As the figurehead of this movement, Chavez made an impact on California, which is now one of three states that recognizes his birthday as a holiday on March 31.