Cesar's career in community organizing began in 1952, when he met and was recruited and trained by Fred Ross, a legendary community organizer who was then forming the San Jose chapter of the Community Service Organization, the most prominent and militant Latino civil rights group of its time. Cesar spent 10 years with CSO, coordinating voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, leading campaigns against racial and economic discrimination, and organizing new CSO chapters across California. In the late 1950s and early '60s, Cesar served as CSO's staff director.
Yet, Cesar's dream was to organize a union that would protect and serve the farm workers whose poverty and powerlessness he had shared. For years, he read everything he could find on farm worker and other unions. He talked to everyone he met who participated in field strikes. He knew the history of farm worker organizing was one sad story after another of broken unions and strikes crushed by violence.He knew that for 100 years many others with much better educations and more resources than he possessed had tried, and failed, to organize farm workers. He knew the experts said organizing farm workers was impossible.
Yet Cesar also realized the only thing holding him back from trying to organize farm workers was his financial security. So in 1962, he took stock of himself: He was 35. He was staff director for the CSO. It was the first steady job he ever held the first time since being a migrant farm worker that he and his family didn't have to constantly struggle to pay rent or buy food.
He had long talks with his wife, Helen. They knew the huge risks and long odds against success. Mostly, Helen worried what would become of their eight children, then ages four to 13.
Cesar came to see what he called "the trap most people get themselves into - [by] tying themselves to a job for security." But he also understood the cycle of poverty that had trapped farm workers for generations.
So on his birthday, March 31, in 1962, Cesar resigned from CSO, leaving the first decent-paying job he had ever had with the security of a regular paycheck. With $1,200 in life savings he founded the National Farm Workers Association with 10 members - Cesar, his wife, Helen, and their eight young children. The NFWA later became the United Farm Workers of America.
The Chavez family moved to Delano, California, a dusty little farm town in California's Central Valley. Helen Chavez and the older children worked in the fields to support the family. Cesar sometimes worked in the fields too on weekends to help make ends meet. He babysat the youngest kids as he drove to farm towns, trying to recruit workers into his infant union.
It was a tough sell at first. He would talk to 100 workers before finding one or two who weren't afraid. Too often he returned home after days on the road not having recruited anyone. He would sometimes get very discouraged. Helen would offer encouragement and boost his spirits.
In 1962, President Kennedy offered to make Cesar head of the Peace Corps in a part of Latin America. It would have meant a big house with servants and all the advantages for his children. Instead, Cesar turned down the job in exchange for a life of self-imposed poverty that was with him until he died.
Founding the union was a leap of faith, not just because the odds were against him, but also because he still had serious doubts; he didn't know if he would succeed. But he did it anyway. He knew he couldn't live with himself if he didn't at least try.
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