Changemaker: Cesar Chavez
Explore how the faith of a Catholic labor organizer inspired his quest for justice
The Changemakers Series is designed to inform and inspire you with stories of ordinary people who dedicated their lives to spreading God’s Word around the world. Today, meet Cesar Chavez, a Hispanic labor organizer whose strong Catholic faith and belief in nonviolence guided his advocacy for migrant farm workers.
A Foundation of Faith
Cesar Chavez was born in 1927 in Yuma Valley, Arizona. His family had immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico in the 1880s and started a farm on 160 acres acquired through the Homestead Act. Chavez’s father, Librado, married his mother, Juana, and left the farm to run a grocery store and auto repair shop. Unfortunately they lost their business in the Great Depression and were forced back to the family farm.
Chavez looked back on that time on the farm with his grandmother as his most formative years. Mama Tella had been raised in a convent, where she learned Latin and Spanish and developed a rich theology. She faithfully taught Chavez and his siblings and guided them in their Catholic faith. “Mama Tella gave us our formal religious training,” Chavez remembered later. “She was always praying, just praying.”
Chavez’s mother was another major spiritual influence in his life. From a young age, he learned to love and care for the poor. Each year on October 16th, his mother would observe the feast day of Santa Eduviges (Saint Hedwig), who is remembered for her ministry to people in poverty and prison. Chavez recalled his mother purposefully seeking out people in need and inviting them into their home, never accepting anything in return. She also laid the foundation for Chavez’s lifelong belief in nonviolence: “She would say, ‘No, it’s best to turn the other cheek,’” Chavez said [Matthew 5:38-39]. “‘It takes two to fight and one can’t do it alone.’”
Although he grew up about twenty miles from the nearest Catholic church in Yuma Valley, Chavez developed a strong faith thanks to his grandmother and mother, whom he viewed as the “functional theologians” that guided his early years.
Love for the Lowly
When Chavez was 12, his family lost the farm in the aftermath of the Depression. The family soon found themselves among the ranks of California’s migrant workers. For the next five years, Chavez worked alongside his parents and siblings, harvesting produce and cotton. Along with poor working conditions in the fields, Chavez experienced prejudice and racism in his public schools and in the broader community, which was still largely segregated. On more than one occasion, he was severely punished for speaking Spanish in the classroom.
Chavez joined the Navy when he was 17. He served in the South Pacific for two years during World War II. After the war ended, he married Helen Fabela and, in 1952, they left the fields of California for work at a lumber mill in San José. There, he met Father Donald McDonnell, who shared Chavez’s concern for the sufferings of the migrant workers and encouraged him to read literature from the Catholic Church on the topic of justice.
One 1891 encyclical from Pope Leo XIII taught that employers had a moral duty to pay their employees wages that could support their families. The letter also supported the rights of employees who were being paid unfairly to form unions and go on strike. “God Himself seems to incline rather to those who suffer misfortune; for Jesus Christ calls the poor ‘blessed,’” wrote the pope, quoting from Luke 6:20. “He lovingly invites those in labor and grief to come to Him for solace; and He displays the tenderest charity toward the lowly and the oppressed.”
Inspired by this biblical vision of justice and a humble Savior’s love for the lowly, Chavez became a community organizer. In 1962, he founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Chavez and a small band of fellow organizers began building the NFWA from the ground up, and soon Chavez was going door to door and giving speeches, reaching working families like his own with a message of dignity that was deeply rooted in his faith.
In Pursuit of Justice
In 1965, Filipino leaders from the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) petitioned the NFWA to join them in a five-year strike against the grape farms in California’s Central Valley. A year later, the NFWA and AWOC merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which helped unite people of many different backgrounds and religious traditions.
Throughout the grape strike, which received nationwide attention, Chavez relied on the traditions of his faith. In 1966, he led a 250-mile march from Delano to Sacramento. The march, which took 25 days, was based on the idea of peregrinación, or penitential pilgrimage. Chavez wanted the march to help workers “set themselves at peace with the Lord, so that the justice of their cause will be purified of all lesser motivation.” When they arrived in Sacramento on Easter Sunday, Chavez and the workers concluded their journey by celebrating mass together.
Chavez held onto the lesson of nonviolence his mother had taught him as a child. He was also inspired by leaders like Moses, Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus himself. In 1968, when some of the striking workers became frustrated by the lack of progress and resorted to burning down packing sheds full of grapes, Chavez completed a now-famous 25-day fast to urge the workers to remain committed to seeking justice without seeking revenge. He described his fast not as a hunger strike but as a personal decision to seek God through prayer and motivate others to devote themselves to the cause of the oppressed.
“I pray to God that this fast will be a preparation for a multiple of simple deeds of justice, carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world,” Chavez stated. He routinely condemned violence and even said in a speech that they would win not through violence, but through fasting and prayer. Above all, he reminded the workers of the source of the justice they sought: “The only justice is Christ—God’s justice. We’re the victims of a lot of shenanigans by the courts but ultimately, down the line, real justice comes…. God tends to write very straight with crooked lines.”
Chavez’s leadership and humble example helped drive the movement forward. By 1970, almost every grape farm had signed union contracts, and wages for farm workers had increased 40 percent.
After the grape strike, Chavez continued to help lead the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and advocate for farm workers. He continued to view his faith as the foundation for his work: “I don’t think I could base my will to struggle on cold economics or on some political doctrine,” he said. “I don’t think there would be enough to sustain me. For me, the base must be faith.”
A Reminder to the Church
In a 1970 speech, Chavez issued a broad call to the church. The church, he argued, could be the most effective servant to the poor—if the Christians within the church committed to pursuing biblical justice and love:
Since the Church is to be servant to the poor, it is our fault if that wealth is not channeled to help the poor in our world.… It is not just our right to appeal to the Church to use its power effectively for the poor, it is our duty to do so. It should be as natural as appealing to government … and we do that often enough.… Finally, in a nutshell, what do we want the Church to do? We don’t ask for more cathedrals. We don’t ask for bigger churches or fine gifts.We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the Church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don’t ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don’t ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.
When Chavez died in 1993, he was remembered by many for his love for the gospel. In addition, he left a compelling example of humbly putting his faith into action, embodying Micah 6:8 (GNT): “The LORD has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.”
As we look back on the life of Cesar Chavez and other Changemakers who have guided our history, we thank God for the people who champion the Bible cause around the world. Today, ask yourself how you can share the transformative message of God’s Word with the people in your life and become a Changemaker for our own time!
The Faith and Liberty Bible. American Bible Society. 2021.
“The Spiritual Praxis of Cesar Chavez.” Robert Chao Romero. Perspectivas. Spring 2017.
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