The eagle on the red and black banner of the United Farm Workers union can be likened to the Aztec deity, Quetzacoatl, the plumed, phoenix-like serpent-god that dies descending into the Earth, only to be born again by ascending to the heavens.
Along with sorrow at his passing, Cesar Chavez's death on April 23 at the age of 66 brings a similar hope of rebirth for many Latinos and others who were inspired by his life of nonviolent resistance to the oppression of America's farm workers. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez represented moral leadership for minorities, the poor, and many others seeking liberation. His commitment to nonviolence, his spiritual rootedness, his invitation to community, his fasts, and his unwavering dedication to the voiceless of California's Central Valley were the crucible in which we learned justice.
Cesar Chavez was raised in a family of migrant farm workers, moving through the apricot and almond orchards of Arizona and California, "following the crops" after his family lost their farm during the Great Depression. Though he attended 65 public schools, Chavez never went beyond the eighth grade--instead he educated himself in public libraries through the writings of Gandhi and John Steinbeck.
Influenced by the newly formed farm worker ministries active in California during the early '50s, Chavez went to work with Saul Alinsky's Community Service Organization registering Mexican-American voters. In 1962 he left to form the National Farm Workers Association, the precursor to the United Farm Workers union. Delano, California, became the site of La Huelga, UFW's famous five-year strike and national grape boycott that began in 1965 when the union joined Filipino grape pickers striking for higher wages. It was this strike and boycott that revealed Chavez as one of the most inspired and creative labor leaders of our time.