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Last Updated: 31 March 2014
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Harrington: Labor leader César Chávez's impact reached beyond abused farm hands

By James C. Harrington
James C. Harrington

AUSTIN, March 31 - Timed for release on today's 87th anniversary of César Chávez's birthday and the holiday named for him, the movie "César Chávez: History Is Made One Step at a Time" will show in theaters around the country.

It premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin earlier this month, attended by Dolores Huerta, César's indomitable organizing colleague, still active at age 83.

Also being released on his birthday is a documentary by the University of Texas at San Antonio on his organizing efforts among Texas farm workers. Its first showing will be at the United Farm Workers Hall in San Juan.

César was born in 1927 and passed away in 1993. He was one of the country's pre-eminent farm labor organizers, and an outstanding Mexican American leader. He dedicated his life to improving the wages and working conditions of one of the country's poorest and most exploited groups of workers, a large number of whom live in Texas.

He led the historic non-violent movement for farm worker rights. He motivated thousands of people who never worked in agriculture to commit themselves to social, economic and environmental justice and civil rights. And he helped grow leadership in the Hispanic community to throw off centuries of discrimination. He made history one step at a time.

César's impact is reflected in the holiday designated for him in 11 states and in the parks, cultural centers, libraries, schools and streets carrying his name in cities across Texas and the United States. In Texas, his birthday is an optional state holiday.

César knew the hard life of farm laborers firsthand. He had to drop out of school after eighth grade to work in the fields as a migrant to help support his family. After serving in the U.S. Navy, César coordinated voter registration drives and campaigns against racial and economic discrimination. In 1962 he helped found the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America.

César led the first successful farm workers union in U.S. history and won industry-wide labor contracts in American agriculture. The union helped achieve dignity, respect, fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits, humane working conditions and other protections for hundreds of thousands of farm laborers. He believed in the peaceful tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: fasts, boycotts and strikes. People felt the justice of his cause. When he died, more than 50,000 people of all walks of life marched in his funeral procession under the hot Delano, California sun.

César's influence extended far beyond the thousands of Texas farm laborers who worked as migrants in California. His efforts to open the doors of colleges and universities to the Hispanic community reached deep into Texas and, in turn, opened doors to economic and political opportunity. We do not measure César's life in material terms but rather as that of a person who stood and worked for equality, justice and dignity for all Americans, and who inspired many others to do the same. The movies are worth seeing for that reason alone.

César's birthday should not be just a day on which we honor his legacy but a day on which we tell his narrative and re-commit ourselves one day at a time to the struggle to make our communities and our country a better place for our children and grandchildren. That's how we make a history we want to live in.

James C. Harrington is founder and director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. He worked with César Chávez in Texas for 18 years.

Write James C. Harrington

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