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Remembering César Chávez on March 29

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If you haven’t already done so, mark your calendar for Friday, March 29. All California state offices, including UC administrative offices, will be closed in recognition of César Chávez Day.

Chávez (1927-1993) is celebrated throughout California and the United States for his activism on behalf of American farm workers.

Born to a family of migrant farm workers in Arizona shortly before the Great Depression, he began laboring in the fields at age 10. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he returned to migrant labor in California where he once again faced significant racial and economic inequality.

Inspired by his heroes Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Francis of Assisi, Chávez dedicated his life to nonviolent activism as a means to positively transform the experiences of the farm workers in his community. Through his numerous protests — including several hunger strikes — he sought livable wages and safer working conditions for migrant laborers. In 1962, he cofounded the National Farm Workers Association, which was the first labor union for farm workers in the United States. Through the union, migrant communities had an avenue to advocate on behalf of themselves and their families for the first time. Chávez’s efforts eventually led to landmark improvements in working conditions and workers’ legal right to unionize.

As Jennifer Pittman of UC Santa Cruz reported in 2017, Chávez had a special connection to the University of California — and UC Santa Cruz, in particular. He held his first major rally on the campus in May 1973, during which he encouraged a crowd of more than 800 supporters to join his approach to nonviolent advocacy. In addition to other large rallies, he was also known to attend intimate class sessions. Three decades later, several UC Santa Cruz alumni regard him as a source of inspiration for their ambitions to foster change.

In 1994, just one year after Chávez’s death, President Bill Clinton posthumously recognized him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest honor awarded to civilians in the United States. “César Chávez left our world better than he found it, and his legacy inspires us still,” Clinton said. “The farm workers who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency pinned their hopes on this remarkable man who, with faith and discipline, soft-spoken humility and amazing inner strength, led a very courageous life.”

Today, Chávez’s legacy is carried on through the César Chávez Foundation.

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