César Chávez was the preeminent leader, voice, and public face of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Chávez is to Latinas/os what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is to the African American community. Moreover, as the posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Aztec Eagle, and a U.S. postage stamp in his honor, Chávez has been called the world’s most famous Latino. Together with Dolores Huerta and Filipino organizers Larry Itliong and Phillip Vera Cruz, Chávez founded the United Farmworkers of America (UFW). The UFW fought for increased wages and better working conditions for exploited California farmworkers and rose to national attention through the famous Delano grape strike and international boycotts of 1965-1970.
Although César Chávez is revered as the most highly regarded Latina/o civil rights icon of the 1960’s, most scholars and activists overlook the profound role played by Christian spirituality in his personal life and the broader farm workers movement. In the words of Chávez, “Today I don’t think I could base my will to struggle on cold economics or on some political doctrine. I don’t think there would be enough to sustain me. For me, the base must be faith.” This essay explores the spiritual formation and praxis of famed Chicano civil rights leader César Chávez during the famous grape strike of 1965-1970. Methodologically, it draws from the broad—and disparate– secondary literature on the life Chávez. Some of this literature explicitly highlights the Christian spirituality of Chávez; most of it hints at the profound role of faith in his upbringing and praxis, but does offer explicit analysis of religion in the farmworkers movement. In addition to synthesizing the existing secondary literature, this essay is also based upon a systematic review of Chavez’s own words about faith as expressed in his autobiography.
This article follows a chronological analysis of the life of Chávez. It begins with discussion of his early familial upbringing in popular Mexican Catholicism and his later mentorship in Catholic social teachings by white clergyman Father Donald McDonnell. Building upon this Christian foundation and the practical skills gained as community organizer for the Alinksy-based Community Service Organization, Chávez led the UFW to historic victories over powerful agricultural interests in the Central Valley of California. Chávez fused popular Mexican religious symbols and practices such as La Virgen de Guadalupe, “peregrinación” (pilgrimage), and fasting, with Catholic social teaching, leading to the first successful unionization of farm workers in United States history. Despite his many successes, like many civil rights icons before and after, Chávez had moral failures. This essay also examines the decline and fall of Chávez following the movement’s crescendo in 1975.
“Abuelita Theology” and the Early Years
César Chávez was born in 1927 to a moderately successful immigrant family in Yuma Valley, Arizona. The earliest members of the Chávez family immigrated to the United States in the 1880’s from Chihuahua, Mexico. In Arizona, they established a freight business and ran a family farm on 160 acres of land acquired through the Homestead Act. At the age of 38, César’s father Librado left the family farm to marry Juana Estrada and become a small businessman. Librado owned a grocery store, auto repair shop, and poolroom. Following the onset of the Great Depression, however, the Chávez family lost their grocery store and moved back onto their grandmother’s farm in Yuma. Eventually the farm was also lost, and, at the age of 12, Chávez, together with his parents and siblings, was launched into a lifetime of migrant labor in the fields of California.
The years spent on the farm with his grandmother, “Mama Tella,” were deeply formidable for the young César. During these years he first felt the sting of racism in the public schools. He was called “dirty Mexican” by classmates and was swatted with a ruler for speaking Spanish. Chávez recalled, “When we spoke Spanish, the teacher swooped down on us. I remember the ruler whistling through the air as its edge came down sharply across my knuckles.” Racial preference for white students was blatant, moreover, and when fights broke out between Mexican and Anglo students, teachers and administrators sided with the latter.
Unfortunately, such racist experiences were typical for Mexican Americans living in the Southwest during the first half of the twentieth century. Similar to African Americans, Latinos were segregated within poor neighborhoods through racially restrictive housing covenants. Segregated Latino communities were known as “colonias,” or “barrios,” and they proliferated throughout California, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico as part of the Great Mexican Migration of 1910-1930. During these years, 750,000 Mexican immigrants came to the United States in search of work and respite from the violence and disruption of the Mexican Revolution. They were recruited by the U.S. government and big business interests in order to fill labor shortages caused by WWI and the racist ban on immigration from Asia, and Southern and Eastern Europe. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 closed off labor migration from China, Japan, the Philippines, and the entirety of Asia; the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the Immigration Act of 1924, limited migration from Southern and Eastern Europe to a trickle. As a consequence, the United States encountered vast labor shortages and turned to Mexico for its labor needs. Mexicans filled vital low wage roles in agriculture, railroad, construction, mines, and factory work. Though they were desired for their cheap labor, they were not welcomed as neighbors by their white counterparts. This gave rise to legalized Latino apartheid and the creation of hundreds of segregated Latino communities throughout the United States. Segregated housing, in turn, gave rise to segregated parks, pools, schools, restaurants, movie theaters, and even hiking trails and mortuaries! For Latinos like César Chávez and his family, segregation was comprehensive and followed them from the cradle to the grave.
César’s early years of living on the family farm were also important because of their impact upon his spiritual formation. His spirituality was shaped by his family and grounded in what Latina/o theologians have termed “Abuelita Theology.” Because formal religious instruction is often lacking among Latinos, the best theologians of the Mexican American community are often grandmothers, or, “abuelitas.“ “Our abuelitas [grandmothers], viejitas [older women], and madrecitas[mothers] have been the functional priestesses and theologians of our iglesia del pueblo [church of the people].” In consonance with this common pattern, Chávez acquired Mexican popular Catholicism from his “abuelita,” “Mama Tella.” As an orphan, Mama Tella was raised in a convent, and it was there that she developed literacy in Latin and Spanish, as well as acquired a deep understanding of Christian doctrine. As the theologian of the family, it was she that taught César about prayer, the Catholic catechism, and devotion to the Virgin Mary. As Chávez later recalled:
“Mama Tella [grandmother] gave us our formal religious training…[S]he was always praying, just praying. Every evening she would sit in bed, and we would gather in front of her. …After the Rosary she would tell us about a particular saint and drill us on our Catechism.”
From his mother, Juana, César learned the biblical value of loving the poor. I agree with this change. As a faithful Catholic, Juana was deeply inspired by the life and ministry of Santa Eduviges, (Saint Hedvig), who, in the 13th century was renown for her generosity to the poor, the imprisoned, and the outcast. Following the example of Santa Eduviges, Juana taught César, ‘You always have to help the needy, and God will help you.” Reminiscent of the early Church, Juana searched the streets for people in need and invited them to her home for food and assistance. As later recounted by the adult César:
“On the saint’s birthday, October 16, my mom would find some needy person to help, and, until recently, she would always invite people to the house, usually hobos. She would go out purposely to look for someone in need, give him something, and never take anything in return…”
The power of “Abuelita theology” is vividly exemplified in the story of César Chávez’s first communion. Because the family lived many miles outside of Yuma where official catechism classes were held, the task of preparing César and his sister Rita for first communion fell upon their abuela, Mama Tella. One day, following the completion of Mama Tella’s religious instruction, the Chávez family traveled to the Catholic Church in Yuma to request first communion. Initially the Anglo priest refused because they had not received formal religious instruction: “They haven’t had any religious training. They can’t take Communion…They must attend class here in Yuma first.” To this, Juana retorted, “They can’t because we live out in the valley twenty miles away. We can’t travel that far every week.” After a second stubborn refusal from the priest, she firmly insisted, “Well, ask them something.” The priest proceeded to drill the Chávez children with questions from the Catholic catechism, and, because of their thorough training in “abuelita theology,” César and Rita passed with flying colors. The children received their first communion the following day.
Similar to the biblical account of the Exodus, it can be said that the farm worker movement has its origins in women. The Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt originated in the daring acts of faithful civil rebellion on the part of Moses’ mother and sister Miriam; in a similar way, the farmworker movement began with the faithfulness of Chavez’ mother Juana, and grandmother, Mama Tella, who first taught him to love God and care for the marginalized of society.
Following his family’s flight from Arizona in the midst of the Great Depression, César spent his teenage years as a migrant farm worker in California. The entire family picked fruits and vegetables in Brawley and Oxnard, and cotton in the San Joaquin Valley. Quite notably, it is during these years that César experienced, first-hand, the deplorable working conditions and exploitation of the farmworker community. As a teenager, he also continued to feel the sting of racism in the forms of segregated schools, housing, restaurants, stores, and movie theaters. The adult Chávez recalled the extreme prejudice of the public schools:
“They would make you run laps around the track if they caught you speaking Spanish, or a teacher in a classroom would make you write ‘I won’t speak Spanish’ on the board 300 times, or I remember once a teacher hung a sign on me that said ‘I am a clown, I speak Spanish.’”
At the age of 17, César enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II. After two years of service in the South Pacific, he returned to labor in the fields once more. In 1948, he married Helen Fabela and began a family. In 1952, they moved to San José where César acquired employment in a lumber mill.
The CSO and Catholic Social Teaching
It was in that same city of Saint Joseph that Chávez was introduced to the formal theology of social justice under the mentorship of white Roman Catholic clergyman Father Donald McDonnell. The two met in a parish church in the barrio of Sal Si Puedes, and McDonnell was one of four priests comprising the “Spanish Mission Band” which was assigned to ministry among Mexican rural communities such as San José and Stockton. In an interesting side note, Chávez met Dolores Huerta, another key figure in the farmworkers’ struggle, through the work of the Mission Band in Stockton.
Seeing his leadership potential, McDonnell took Chávez under his wing and introduced him to labor history, community organizing, and the social teachings of the Catholic church. In the words of Chávez:
“I began to spend a lot of time with Father McDonnell. We had long talks about farm workers. I knew a lot about the work, but I didn’t know anything about the economics…And then we did a lot of reading. That’s when I started reading the Encyclicals, St. Francis, and Gandhi and having the case for attaining social justice explained.”
Chávez was especially influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum novarum (1891) and Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, Quadragesimo anno (1931) which discussed the moral duties owed by capital to labor. According to papal teaching in Rerum novarum, employers possess a moral obligation to pay their workers wages which are sufficient to sustain the livelihood of their families. Moreover, this encyclical upholds the right of workers to form trade union associations and to go on strike. In powerful assertion of God’s love and concern for the poor and marginalized, Pope Leo XIII asserts in Rerum novarum:
“God Himself seems to incline rather to those who suffer misfortune; for Jesus Christ calls the poor “blessed”; He lovingly invites those in labor and grief to come to Him for solace; and He displays the tenderest charity toward the lowly and the oppressed.”
Following his formative spiritual training with Father McDonnell, Chávez went to work as a community organizer with the Community Service Organization (CSO). The CSO was founded in Boyle Heights in 1948 by Edward Roybal (the first Latino elected to the Los Angeles City Council in the 20th century), Fred Ross, and Mexican American veterans. The CSO created a movement against discrimination in housing, employment, and education, and sought to build a political power base for the Mexican American community in California. Through his work with the CSO, Chávez became immersed in the world of politics and community organizing, and also received mentorship by veteran labor organizers Fred Ross and Saul Alinsky. Chávez organized CSO chapters in small towns and barrios throughout California, led citizenship classes and voter registration campaigns, and served as a lobbyist for Mexican American issues in Sacramento. He served ten years as a community organizer among Mexican American urban populations in California and eventually rose to the rank of national director of the CSO. Parenthetical deleted and footnote fixed.
Faith, Struggle, and Non-violence in the Farmworkers Movement
In 1962, Chávez quit his post with the CSO to pursue his dream of organizing Mexican farm workers. With little funding and few supporters, Chávez, together with Dolores Huerta, Fred Ross, and cousin Manuel Chávez, launched the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in the San Joaquin Valley. The NFWA functioned largely as a mutual aid association, as opposed to a traditional union, sponsoring burial insurance, a credit union, a gas station, and a grocery store. Chávez recruited new members for the NFWA on a grass roots level by going house to house and speaking to small groups of workers. The house meeting strategy eased the fears of farmworkers because it allowed them to plan and organize outside of the purview of growers who might otherwise retaliate against them. In order to join, members were required to pay dues of $3.50 each month. This fostered a sense of commitment and ownership, as well as allowed the NFWA to remain independent and non-beholden to outside interests.
In 1965, the fledgling organization was asked by Larry Itliong and other Filipino leaders of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to participate in a strike against the major grape growers of the Central Valley. On Mexican Independence Day, September 16, 1965, Chávez and the NFWA voted unanimously to join the grape strike. As a natural outflow of their collaboration in the grape strike, the NFWA and the AWOC merged to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee on August 22, 1966. The strike was to last five years and resulted in the first successful organizing of agricultural workers in U.S. history. It also catapulted Chávez into international acclaim. In a strange twist of irony, Chávez did not even start the very strike which made him famous. Perhaps God was keeping Chávez humble and showing him that his success did not originate in his own efforts but came from God alone.
The central role played by Christian faith in the life of Chávez and the farmworkers struggle is often overlooked. The radical uniqueness of the United Farmworkers movement was in fact its creative fusion of popular Mexican Catholicism, traditional Catholic social teachings, and Alinsky-based community organizing methods. In the words of noted Chicano historian Mario García, “[I]t was César’s faith more than anything else that provided the strength for his long and arduous struggles. His movement of farm workers was first and foremost a faith-based movement because César understood the power of faith.” Chávez was open and direct about the critical role of faith in his union organizing efforts:
“Today I don’t think I could base my will to struggle on cold economics or on some political doctrine. I don’t think there would be enough to sustain me. For me, the base must be faith…While most people drawn toward liberalism or radicalism leave the church, I went the other way. I drew closer to the church the more I learned and understood.” Original text reads this way.
The UFW fused popular Mexican religious symbols and practices such as La Virgen de Guadalupe, “peregrinación” (pilgrimage), and fasting, with Catholic social teaching. This religious praxis is most clearly embodied in the famous march to Sacramento, as well as in Chavez’s 25-day fast of 1968.
In March 1966, the farmworker movement garnered national attention as part of a famous 250-mile, twenty-five day march from Delano to Sacramento. Unknown to many, however, Chávez fashioned this famous march from the Central Valley to Sacramento as a penitential pilgrimage, or “peregrinación.” Drawing from popular Mexican religious tradition, he called the march, “Penitence, Pilgrimage, and Revolution.” According to Catholic tradition, penitence is a spiritual practice by which participants atone for their post-baptismal sins. Pilgrimage, moreover, is a spiritual practice through which pilgrims acquire merit before God. Chávez viewed the Sacramento march in terms of this Mexican, Catholic spiritual tradition:
“The penitential procession is also in the blood of the Mexican American, and the Delano march  will therefore be one of penance—public penance for the sins of the strikers, their own personal sins as well their yielding perhaps to feelings of hatred and revenge in the strike itself. They hope by the march to set themselves at peace with the Lord, so that the justice of their cause will be purified of all lesser motivation.”
In further religious significance, the penitential pilgrimage was led by a priest in full clerical garb and a banner of La Virgen de Guadalupe. Chávez and his followers arrived in Sacramento on Easter, and concluded their pilgrimage with the celebration of mass.
By 1968, some union members turned to violence in response to physical attacks on the part of the growers and a perceived lack of progress. Demoralized workers threw nails on roads to flatten the tires of growers and the police, blew up irrigation pumps, and even burned down packing sheds full of grapes. In response, on February 15, 1968, Chávez embarked upon a 25-day fast in order to “bring the Movement to a halt, do something that would force them and me to deal with the whole question of violence and ourselves.” The fast was aimed at reinforcing the UFW commitment to nonviolence, and it marked the second special turning point in the farm workers struggle.
For Chávez, fasting was a spiritual exercise and a form of penance for his own sins as well as those of his supporters. It was not a “hunger strike” aimed at accomplishing a political goal or forcing his adversaries to submit to his demands. Through fasting, he sought God’s divine intervention in “la causa” (the cause) and sought to purify himself and the farmworkers movement from sin and the temptation to appropriate violence. In fact, during each day of the strike, Chávez celebrated mass and received communion. Such celebrations of mass were common throughout the strike and have been called “liturgies of protest.” Speaking of the Christian underpinnings of his 1968 fast, Chávez stated:
“My fast is informed by my religious faith and by my deep roots in the Church. It is not intended as pressure on anyone but only is an expression of my own deep feelings and my own need to do penance and to be in prayer.”
“I pray to God that this fast will be a preparation for a multiple of simple deeds of justice, carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world.” This is how the original text reads.
Chávez was misunderstood by many in the movement who viewed his fasting as heavenly “pie in the sky.” He received vehement critique from Tony Orendain, secretary treasurer of the Union, as well as by supporters of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation and other union progressives. UFW attorney Jerry Cohen reflected honestly upon the liberal conundrum of purporting to support religious freedom, while at the same time denouncing religious expression as part of the farmworkers struggle: “It’s strange how some people react who profess to believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion. They tolerate anything except religion. A lot of liberals and radicals were pissed.”
According to Dolores Huerta, Chávez viewed prayer and fasting as the keys to the success of the grape strike and the larger farm worker struggle:
“I know it’s hard for people who are not Mexican to understand, but this is part of the Mexican culture—the penance, the whole idea of suffering for something, of self-inflicted punishment. It’s a tradition of very long standing. In fact, César has often mentioned in speeches that we will not win through violence, we will win through fasting and prayer.”
In the end, Chávez was vindicated. His fast engendered a critical turning point in the movement and, in the words of one observer: “The irony of the fast was that it turned out to be the greatest organizing tool in the history of the labor movement…” According to Chávez, the results were “like a miracle” because “the work schedule began to pick up, dedication increased, and the whole question of using violence ended immediately.” The grape boycott expanded internationally, and the union even received a $50,000 donation for the purchase of a new building. Bringing crucifixes and altars to La Virgen de Guadalupe, thousands of farmworkers visited Chávez at the Forty Acres headquarters in Delano, and even established a tent city. In religious solidarity, moreover, Chávez and his many supporters celebrated mass together on a daily basis. The services were led by priests donning vestments made of union flags, and Holy Eucharist was celebrated with union wine and tortillas.
The fast garnered wide attention in the national media. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram of support just one month before his assassination, and Chávez was also famously visited by Senator Robert Kennedy who was then a presidential candidate. On March 11, 1968, with Kennedy by his side, Chávez broke his fast with the celebration of mass on the back of a flatbed truck.
Chavez’s firm belief in non-violence flowed centrally from his Christian convictions. These convictions were shaped most directly by the “abuelita theology” of his youth, Catholic social teachings, and the historical examples of St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. For Chávez, non-violence was not the same as passivity, but involved the employment of peaceful, strategic methods such as boycotts, strikes, pilgrimages, prayer, and fasting: “People equate nonviolence with inaction—with not doing anything—and its not that at all. It’s exactly the opposite.” Chávez referred to this approach as “militant nonviolence” and Gandhian “moral jujitsu.” According to Chávez, moreover, the utilization of violence was ineffective because the growers wielded greater physical power through local police forces. Simply put, the growers would always win a violent standoff because they had the police on their side. To draw a biblical analogy, challenging the growers to a battle of physical force would be akin to the fledgling early Christian church waging direct war with Rome and Caesar’s mighty army.
César’s mother communicated to him the wisdom of non-violence through “dichos,” or Mexican folk sayings. These dichos challenged the logic of machismo and echoed Jesus’ admonitions to love your enemy and “turn the other cheek.” According to Chávez,
“She taught her children to reject that part of a culture which too often tells its young men that you’re not a man if you don’t fight back. She would say, ‘No, its best to turn the other cheek. God gave you senses like eyes and mind and tongue and you can get out of anything. It takes two to fight and one can’t do it alone.’”
Chávez also looked to history in search of successful role models of non-violent activism. Drawing from his Catholic background, he found inspiration in the story of Moses and the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt, as well as in the life of Christ and the Roman persecution of the early church. Gandhi was also a central inspiration:
“Some great nonviolent successes have been achieved in history. Moses is about the best example, and the first one. Christ is also a beautiful example, as is the way Christians overcame tyranny. They needed over three hundred years, but they did it. The most recent example is Gandhi. To me that’s the most beautiful one. We can examine it more closely because it happened during our lifetime.”
It is conceivable that Chávez viewed farmworkers as modern day Israelites who were being oppressed by the “Egypt” of his day–growers, police, and local political officials. Drawing another parallel to the experience of Jesus and the early church, perhaps he also viewed the growers as the Roman empire which violently oppressed the first century Jewish community.
Echoing the teachings of Jesus and the “dichos” of his early upbringing, Chávez viewed suffering, sacrifice, and love of enemy as the path to farmworker liberation. Although Chávez claimed that love of enemies was a key principal of non-violent resistance, he was honest in his assessment that this was difficult to embody:
“Love is the most important ingredient in nonviolent work—love the opponent—but we really haven’t learned yet how to love the growers. I think we’ve learned how not to hate them, and maybe love comes in stages.”
Central to Chavez’s practice of nonviolence were the beliefs that God was on the side of the farmworkers and that Jesus was the source of justice. The idea of God’s special concern for agricultural workers is supported poignantly in the book of James:
“4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.” James 5: 4-6 (NRSV)
Because God had heard the cries of the farmworkers, moreover, victory in the grape boycott would come ultimately by the hand of God. It would not be the result of human efforts, no matter how strategic. In the words of César:
“The only justice is Christ—God’s justice. We’re the victims of a lot of shenanigans by the courts but ultimately, down the line, real justice comes. It does not come from the courts, but it comes from a set of circumstances and I think God’s hand is in it. God tends to write very straight with crooked lines.”
Although Chávez is often cited as an icon of cultural nationalism in Chicana/o Studies, like King, he subscribed to a notion of community which transcended racial and denominational boundaries. Using the language of King, his vision was the “beloved community” of people of all nations, languages, and tongues (Revelation 7: 9-10; Galatians 3: 28-29). In simple, poignant words, Chávez asserted that the goal of his movement was to help all of humanity, regardless of racial affiliation. Chávez opposed the extreme cultural nationalism which characterized some of the Chicano movement, and rejected narrow nationalism as racist and divisive:
“La Raza? Why be racist. Our belief is to help everyone, not just one race. Humanity is our belief.”
“[W]e oppose some of this La Raza business so much. We know what it does. When La Raza means or implies racism, we don’t support it. But if it means our struggle, our dignity, our cultural roots then we’re for it.”
It is also worth noting that Chávez, like King, embraced Christian ecumenism. Although a devout Roman Catholic, Chávez partnered with both the Pentecostal community and the Protestant California Migrant Ministry. Under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, and the leadership of Presbyterian pastor Chris Hartmire, the CMM worked closely with the UFW and served as a catalyst for the recruitment of Protestant church support.  Chávez met Chris Hartmire and the CMM through organizers Fred Ross and Saul Alinsky. The CMM underwrote many actions of the UFW and even developed a persuasive “huelga theology” to counter the protests of conservative critics. In fact, many Protestants supported La Causa not only financially and theologically, but also by serving in picket lines and boycotts, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, and by documenting the violence of growers against the UFW. CMM support of the UFW was not without a political cost, however, and the CMM faced strong opposition by Protestant growers, as well as by conservative forces within the Presbyterian denomination. Drawing upon his interdenominational Christian experiences, Chávez redefined the Christian church in broad, ecumenical terms. He also strongly asserted that the Church should play a vital role in all justice movements:
“[W]hen we refer to the Church we should define the word a little. We mean the whole Church, the Church as an ecumenical body spread around the world, and not just its particular form in a parish in a local community…That Church is one form of the Presence of God on earth, and so naturally it is powerful. It is a powerful moral and spiritual force which cannot be ignored by any movement.”
The Decline of Chávez and the UFW
This essay has thus far focused upon the spiritual praxis of César Chávez and the UFW during the “glory years” of the first grape strike from 1965-1970. By the close of the 1960’s, nearly all grape growers had signed union contracts, and by 1970, the wages of farmworkers had increased by 40%. For the next five years, the UFW continued in a series of victories against the growers, culminating in passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) in May of 1975. This legislation granted many concessions to the UFW, including the right to boycott, secret ballot elections, voting rights for migrant seasonal workers, and control over the timing of union elections.
According to historian Matthew García and others, Chávez and the UFW began a precipitous decline in November 1976 with the failure of Proposition 14. Spearheaded by Chávez, Proposition 14 sought to guarantee funding for the ALRA, as well to require unfettered access by union organizers to farm workers in the fields. Proposition 14 was solidly rejected by California voters by a 2 to 1 margin. Following this major political loss, it is said that Chávez became increasingly autocratic and dismissive of dissent. He also launched a purge of union staff and volunteers at union headquarters and throughout the country. According to Filipino farmworker leader Philip Vera Cruz: “In the UFW power was held by César alone, and he handed out some power to individuals at his direction.”
As a further means of establishing control, Chávez even tried to create a religious order centered upon his own personality and the New Age religion of Synanon. One defining feature of Synanon was “the game.” As part of the game, one person sat in the middle of a circle while others hurled insults and accusations at her/him for one hour. The goal was to “yield truth, communication, a catharsis.” Chávez became so strongly influenced by the teachings of Synanon that he even came to declare, “I use my aura to run the Union.” According to religious studies scholar Luis León, Chávez “came to believe his own myth, exhibiting signs of megalomania and paranoia.” By the late 1970’s, Chávez and the UFW seemed to be more closely associated with Synanon than with Catholicism.
In the wake of Synanon and Chávez’s autocratic purges and practices, many left the UFW. Though the UFW would continue with some modicum of success for a number of years to come, by the time of Chávez’ death in 1993 the UFW plummeted in membership from a high of 80,000, to 5,000.
The creative genius of Chávez as an organizer shone most brightly during the first grape strike. Drawing from the “abuelita theology” of his youth, Chávez uniquely fused popular Mexican Catholicism, Catholic social teachings, and Alinsky-based community organizing methods, leading to the formation of the first successful agricultural union in United States history. The famous Easter pilgrimage to Sacramento and 25-day spiritual fast of 1968 represent sterling examples of this innovative fusion. Chavez’s deep commitment to non-violence also flowed from his Christian faith and was inspired by the examples of Moses, Jesus Christ, the early church, Gandhi, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. His Christian spiritual praxis was most prominent during the first decade of the farmworker movement.
From the perspective of church history, however, the movement began a steady decline after 1975 when Chávez took his focus away from Christ and became increasingly self-focused. Though he continued in his commitment to non-violence, he ignored two central principles of biblical teaching—servant leadership and abiding in Christ.
The Christian call to servant leadership was clearly articulated by Jesus in his rebuke of the disciples on the road to Jerusalem. Following the egoistic request of James and John to sit in positions of honor and authority next to Jesus in the coming Kingdom, Jesus explained to them the nature of “upside down” leadership in the Kingdom of God. Unlike Roman authorities who ruled by force and fiat, Jesus’ followers were to lead based upon the model of humility and service:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matthew 20: 25-28 (NRSV)
Sadly, Chávez did not take this important aspect of Jesus’ teaching to heart, and, as has been discussed, became increasingly authoritarian following the failure of Proposition 14 in 1975. In so doing, he mimicked the leadership model of the very growers which he opposed, and, as a consequence, fomented widescale rebellion among the leadership and rank and file membership of the UFW.
From the perspective of pastoral theology, Chavez’s self-centeredness, by its very nature, caused him to take his eyes off of Christ who he claimed was the source of his earlier success. This spiritual decentering was demonstrated most clearly in his failed attempt to establish a religious group based upon his own personality, and by his self-proclamation: “I run the union with my aura.” As a result, he ceased to “abide in Christ,” and the decline of the UFW was the natural consequence. As Jesus teaches—ironically using the metaphor of grapes“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15: 5-6). The example of Chávez offers a clear warning to all Christians who aspire to a life of social justice and activism: Success in Christian social justice endeavors is not the product of human cleverness or carefully conceived strategies and tactics—it is first and foremost the fruit of God experienced in the lives of all those who would cling to Christ.
Unfortunately, the centrality of faith in the praxis of César Chávez, as well as in the lives of other civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., is often overlooked in both academic and activist circles. Almost without exception, academic and popular discussions of Chávez and King claim them as role models while at the same time scrubbing them of their Christian faith. They take the “Rev.” away from King and the “abuelita theology” away from Chávez. They also ignore the important role played by the Christian Church in the major civil rights successes of the 1960’s. Most have forgotten the spiritual roots of Chávez and King, and thereby forgotten the source of their power.
Remembering the spiritual roots and praxis of César Chávez is now more important than ever. In the wake of the recent presidential election and the tsunami of anti-immigrant sentiment and policy which has ensued, thousands of Latinas/os have been stirred to action. They look to Chávez as an icon of Latino social justice, but are unaware of the critical role which Christianity played in his organizing and praxis. Moreover, many wish to integrate their Christian spirituality with their activism but have few role models, either in the world of secular activism or the church. As an inspiring example for the rising generation of Latina/o activists, it is hoped that this essay will provide a roadmap of the basic spiritual principles and methods which empowered César Chávez and the United Farm Workers movement.
[This article was translated into Spanish by Néstor Medina]