UMKC’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion hosted the 10th Annual César Chávez lecture Thursday Night with a speech from the late civil rights leader’s granddaughter, Christine Chávez.
UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton introduced Chávez to the audience, acknowledging her many achievements.
“I pray that we not only hear her words with our ears but with our hearts,” said Morton. “The late César Chávez said, ‘You are never strong enough that you don’t need help,’ and I hope that we can carry on the legacy of César Chavez by working together toward equality for all people.”
After growing up under the wing of her grandfather, Christine Chávez went on to become the political director for United Farm Workers Union (UFW), the union her grandfather started, and the coordinator for farm workers in the United States Department of Agriculture.
She says that growing up, she spent lot of time working with the farm workers movement, walking picket lines, leafleting in front of super markets and volunteering at UFW offices. She says it was important for César to see his children and grandchildren become involved in the movement.
“I learned so many lesson from him, but the two most important lessons were about solidarity and commitment,” she said.
When Christine was 15 years old, her grandfather invited her and her sister Teresa on a trip to New York City. The organization that brought them to the city had planned on them staying in the premier Park Plaza Hotel. César, however, had a rule that he would never stay in a hotel when they could always find a supporter’s home to stay in.
“We begged and begged and begged, and finally he says yes, we can stay in the hotel,” said Chávez.
As they were in the car on the way to the hotel, they saw a line of maids in front of the hotel protesting their working conditions.
“My grandfather was furious,” she said. “Not only did we not get to see Manhattan or stay in the hotel, we had to get out and show solidarity with those workers.”
She continued with a story about the first time she realized who her grandfather was and how committed he was to the movement. In the summer of 1988 her grandmother, Helen Chávez, informed her that her grandfather hadn’t eaten in a week. He was fasting in an attempt to bring public awareness to the pesticide poisoning that was impacting farm workers and their children. He drank only water for 36 days.
“While he fasted week after week, we saw him go from a very active and vibrant person to being bed ridden and almost losing his life, and I’ve never witnessed that level of commitment and dedication in any person before or since,” said Chávez.
That sort of commitment is what led César Chávez and Dolores Huerta to found the UFW Labor Union in 1962.
César Chávez and Huerta started the movement to advocate for hospitable working conditions, equality in the work place, clean drinking water and a livable wage.
César Chávez and the UFW gained the support of Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leaders, the LGBTQ community and migrant Pilipino workers to form one of the strongest farm workers unions in history.
On April 23, 1993, in the home of a farm worker in Arizona, César Chávez passed away.
“My grandfather always used to say that he would have not worked a day in his life if he knew this movement would not go on without him,” Chavez recalled.
Following in César Chavez’s tradition 50 years later, the UFW movement is still advocating for civil rights, immigration reform, practicing non-violence and encouraging diversity in social movements.
Last year, the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, signed the first ever farm worker bill granting overtime pay to farm workers. The UFW was able to do this with the support of the LGBTQ community, the former secretary of Agriculture and major labor organizations who all played a role in establishing this bill.
“My grandfather always used to say, ‘We don’t need perfect political systems, we need perfect participation,” said Chávez.