March 31, 1927 – April 23, 1994
“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.”
“Our very lives are dependent, for sustenance, on the sweat and sacrifice of the campesinos. Children of farm workers should be as proud of the parents’ professions as other children are of theirs.”
“What is at stake is human dignity. If a man is not accorded respect he cannot respect himself and if he does not respect himself, he cannot demand it.”
César Chávez founded the United Farmworkers Union, fought for the rights of some of the most powerless members of American society, and inspired thousands of people to better their own lives and the lives of those around them.
In 1952, Chávez joined the Community Service Organization (CSO) and became a community organizer, sometimes helping fellow farm workers with their everyday problems, encouraging them to register to vote or to become U.S. citizens. He tried to convince the CSO leadership that farm workers needed a union devoted to their interests. When the leadership refused, he resigned from the CSO, took his life savings of $1,200 and founded the National Farm Workers Association, the precursor to the United Farm Workers union (UFW). The migrant workforce was scared, divided, and easily manipulated by farm owners and labor contractors, and a lack of connection between well meaning labor organizers and the migrant workers had also doomed previous organizing efforts.
On of Chávez’s great insights was that a successful union of farm workers had to be one they formed themselves. “Si se puede!” (“Yes We Can!”) was a rallying cry of the UFW, and in part it meant that the people in the union, whom no one thought were capable of doing anything more than picking fruits and vegetables, could indeed fight for their rights as workers and human beings and succeed.
In 1968, to draw more attention to the grape pickers strike, Chávez began a 25 day hunger strike, organized more rallies and demonstrations and called for a national boycott of grapes. By 1970, the grape growers had agreed to a contract with the UFW which gave the workers health care benefits and a raise in pay.
In the words of Robert F. Kennedy, “One of the heroic figures of our time.” He was awarded posthumously the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Clinton in 1994.
“Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures”
“From the depths of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.”
This picture is a needlepoint portrait from my “Persons of Interest” series. The title is a play on the phrase because the subjects of these portraits are people who have drawn the negative attention of governments and others who felt threatened by them, as well as being of particular interest to me because of how much they inspire me to be a better person and to dedicate myself to help other people. Portraits are approximate three feet square with 130,000 stitches and require 160 hours to complete.