Defending the Voiceless
By Julián Castro
ARTHUR SCHATZ/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETT Y
United Farm Worker
leader Cesar Chavez
in front of posters of
Robert F. Kennedy
and Mahatma Gandhi
during the 1968 grape
ooking back on Cesar Chavez’s life, I am amazed at
how the man and his work defied expectations. As
the twentieth century progressed, United States labor
unions swelled with longshoremen, teachers, firefight-
ers—but farm workers?
As co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW)
union with Dolores Huerta, Chavez successfully organized
America’s poorest, and arguably the most politically impotent, labor pool into a powerful force for economic justice. That
the UFW could win major concessions on wages and working
conditions from some of the nation’s largest produce growers
surprised many; that those victories were led by Chavez, a soft-spoken, five-foot-six, unassuming man committed to nonviolence bedeviled not only the growers but popular imagination.
Indeed, Chavez was not the brash, burly, bare-knuck-led archetype of a union boss. His quiet resolve was punctuated instead by asceticism and weeks-long fasts that
captured the nation’s attention and galvanized support for the concerns of men and women who toiled outside the consciousness of mainstream America.
In the years since Chavez’ death in 1993, the UF W has remained the nation’s leading voice for farm workers, expanding its network of organized farms and turning a new
generation into champions for the progress Chavez envisioned. Chavez’ legacy is felt today by millions of workers who benefit from improved working conditions and
better wages compared to previous generations.
To many Americans, particularly Mexican-Americans, Chavez
symbolizes a larger struggle for civil rights, a demand that
mainstream America heed the call for equal treatment under
the law and an opportunity to realize the American Dream.
As generations pass, that dream is coming true more often. The children and grandchildren of farm workers, rallied
by Chavez’ cry of “¡Si, se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”), now fill the
rolls of universities. They vote in boardrooms and city halls
across the United States. The backhoes of their forefathers have
turned into iPads and gavels—a testament to Chavez’ impact.
Julián Castro is a two-term mayor of San Antonio, Texas.