Whether it is volunteering to do arts and crafts with kids at a local Boys and Girls club or cooking and preparing lunch for residents of a family shelter — or even volunteering for beach clean-up — this week there will be plenty of opportunities to give a “day of service” in honor of legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez. The state holiday, which is March 31, was created to commemorate Chavez’s legacy of social reform and sacrifice , but organizations throughout Los Angeles County are planning activities this week.
“I can think of no better way for us to honor Cesar Chavez’s memory than to roll up our sleeves and go to work on behalf of our community,” said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Born on a small farm near Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927, Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in the early 1960s to focus on the unjust working conditions suffered by migrant farm workers. Following in Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s footsteps, he worked with the principles of non-violence, organizing strikes and boycotts to make change.
Having worked as a migrant farmer since the age of 10, Chavez knew how grueling it was to plant and harvest crops, working long hours under the hot sun, with pesticides spraying the workers, few breaks and miserly pay. His efforts to unionize workers who enjoyed minimal protections garnered national attention and soon, he had the support of the Kennedy Administration. In fact, in 1962 he was offered the chance to head up the Peace Corps in Latin America, but he passed and instead re-doubled his efforts to organize a union among farm workers.
For Chavez, a commitment to non-violence and to organizing workers were entwined. In 1966, he led a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento calling on state government to pass laws that would permit farm workers to unionize and allow collective bargaining agreements. In 1968, he went on a water only fast to re-affirm his commitment to non-violence. But it was the 1965 Delano Grape Boycott that perhaps garnered the most attention and that, by 1970, prompted growers to sit down with the workers to hammer out an agreement on working conditions, wages and other needs. Thousands of Americans were asked to boycott table grapes to honor the strike—and they did.
“Cesar used to say his job as an organizer was helping ordinary people do extraordinary things,” said Marc Grossman of the Cesar Chavez Foundation and Chavez’ longtime aide. “He showed the farm workers how to win against enormous odds, even if they were poor and uneducated. By helping them believe in themselves, Cesar succeeded where so many others failed for 100 years to organize farm workers.”
In Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Public Library will be hosting volunteer events in honor of Chavez, as will the Weingart Center, Catholic Charities, the Elizabeth Ann Seton residence family shelter, the Chinatown Service Center and several parks throughout the region.
As Chavez himself said, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. The end of all education should surely be service to others.”