Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) was the most important single figure in illuminating the plight of desperately poor migrant workers from Mexico, the country of his heritage (but not his birth, which was in Yuma, Arizona). These migrant workers – a category of individual that remains very much in the news today, especially every time public concerns regarding illegal immigration and the minimum wage arise – were historically exploited by American farmers and manufacturers, who used these non-English-speaking peoples for cheap labor performed under often inhumane conditions. Chavez recognized the injustice in this situation and set out to address it. His instrument of change was the introduction of organized labor practices into this previously hidden-from-view facet of the nation’s economy. Chavez became the symbol of migrant farm workers laboring under harsh conditions in the fields with minimal breaks, no health coverage, and excessively long hours, often under a very hot southwestern Sun. After starting his formal career as a labor organizer focused on the plight of migrant workers with the Community Service Organization, he formed his own labor union, the National Farm Workers Association, later renamed the United Farm Workers. In addition to collectivizing farm workers, Chavez launched a campaign aimed at encouraging, and helping, Mexican Americans to vote in elections, thereby laying the seeds for what would become a politically powerful constituency.
Chavez was successful at radically increasing the visibility of the plight of migrant farm workers from Latin America. And, as noted, he was instrumental in paving the way for American citizens of Hispanic heritage to act politically as a bloc, the unity of which would provide much greater political influence. How far-reaching his accomplishments, however, is an open question. He certainly helped improved the conditions of migrant farm workers, especially through his use of labor strikes, but the continued exploitation of economically-destitute immigrants has certainly survived him, which brings us to the question of barriers or obstacles Chavez faced. Those obstacles were and remain formidable, including the demand of the public for inexpensive food and, once upon a time, apparel (derived from cotton and wool, the former a very labor-intensive industry for hundreds of years, and now mostly produced in less-developed regions of the world). Farmers exploited the cheap labor illegal immigrants and Mexican American workers provided because it enabled them to hold down costs while maximizing profit – a fundamental principal of capitalist economics. That rationale remains as prevalent today as ever, with most American workers unwilling to perform the difficult manual labor associated with the types of jobs that are consequently occupied by illegal aliens. Economics constitutes a very formidable obstacle to immigration reform, and Chavez’s legacy has done little to refute that.
Another obstacle confronted by Chavez was racism. Much of the American southwest, of course, was once part of Mexico. One macro-result of the westward spread of the United States was the forced incorporation of those territories into the U.S.A. As with the Native American population that was swept aside in the course of that westward expansion, the Mexican populations of this region were marginalized and treated as inferior. The whites of European heritage who settled the West treated the indigenous population with indifference at best and inhumanity at worst. Chavez’s efforts at illuminating the conditions under which these citizens,, migrants and the descendants of these populations existed was certainly meritorious but, as suggested, may have been mostly ephemeral. Cesar Chavez was an important figure in American history, and deserves to be remembered and honored, but the obstacles he confronted have not entirely disappeared.