César Chávez is well-known as a symbol of the rights of migrant labor and as an inspirational figure within the Hispanic community. He organized the United Farm Workers, which was a union dedicated to migrant, largely Hispanic labor, and was able to achieve major gains on behalf of these workers. In 2011, President Obama declared March 31st “César Chávez day,” calling Chávez “A true champion for justice.”  However, Chávez’ role as the intellectual leader of this movement is less well-known that his political and social leadership. The traditions of the labor movement and left-wing Catholicism were instrumental in forming Chávez’s opinions on human dignity and the need for grass-roots resistance to injustice.

The name itself instructed you to get out. In the 1950s, the Hispanic district of eastern San Jose was nicknamed “Sal Si Puedes,” which translates roughly to “Escape if you can.” César Chávez took this warning and made it a rallying cry, adopting the slogan “Sí se puede” as the mantra of the United Farm Workers, a Union of thousands of migrant farm workers throughout the Southwest. Instead of endorsing individual uplift, Chávez pushed for collective action, using the impersonal “se puede” to roughly mean “It can be done” (the word “puede” is a form of the verb “poder,” which in its nominative form means “power”). But the road from “Sal Si Puedes” to “Sí se puede” was long. It began in 1952, when César Chávez (1927-1993) was twenty-five years old, married with four children, and living in Sal Si Puedes. Chávez had been born to small farmers in Yuma, Arizona, but the Great Depression had forced his family into the migrant labor system. Chávez and his family were devout Catholics, and during their time in Sal Si Puedes they became acquainted with Father Donald McDonnell (1923-2012), whose brand of Catholicism blended traditional religious symbols with a strong belief in the duty of the Church to help the poor through supporting unionization and social justice. Chávez also met Fred Ross (1910-1992), a community organizer working to secure political representation for California’s Chicano communities. Chávez referred to Ross as his hero and his best friend, and it was from him that he learned how to be a community organizer.

Chávez drew heavily on two traditions, the left-wing Catholicism of McDonnell and the labor activism of Ross. In his decades-long struggle for better working conditions for America’s farm laborers, McDonnell provided Chávez with the “why,” while Ross with the “how.”

Chávez and Left-Wing Catholicism

Chávez believed he represented the egalitarian and democratic tradition of the Catholic Church. In outlining the plan for one of the United Farm Workers’ early marches, Chávez wrote, “We seek, and have, the support of the Church in what we do.”  Chávez quoted Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rights and Duties of Labor and Capital,” which states, “Everyone’s first duty is to protect the workers from the greed of speculators who use human beings as instruments to provide themselves with money.” Pope Leo XIII was known as one of the foundational figures of “distributism,” a theory articulated around the turn of the twentieth century as an alternative to both liberal capitalism and state socialism.  Distributists believed property was a fundamental right and that its denial implied the denial of a basic dignity to labor. The proper economic system to prevent the widespread deprivation and misery seen as a permanent fixture of both state socialism and market capitalism was the broadest possible distribution of property ownership.

This was different from Communism in that it was based on Catholic ideas and was culturally quite conservative. Distributists believed capitalism was a threat both to economic equality and to traditional values. Thomas Stork, a present-day distributist, explains that “both socialism and capitalism are products of the European Enlightenment and are thus modernizing and anti-traditional forces.”  In this way, distributism was actually a reaction against the inequality of capitalism but also against the corrosive impact of modernity on traditional culture. Distributists were still Catholics, even if they were the sort of Catholics thought the end of capitalism was necessary for social justice. While this combination of economic radicalism and cultural conservatism might seem difficult to imagine today, around the turn of the century it was a major force in Catholic thought. Even today, the Catholic Church calls for a radical realignment of capitalism to make it serve humanity, not business.  Most Republicans and a good many Democrats are more economically conservative than the official line of the Catholic Church. If the fact that a hero of the American Left drew his inspiration from mainline Catholic teachings seems far-fetched, it is only because Americans tend to underestimate the radicalism of Catholic thought.

Distributism had fallen out of favor by the nineteen-sixties, but its influence could be felt in the church’s general leftward turn during that decade. The sixties witnessed the emergence of liberation theology, a system of thought based in Latin America that used distributist principles to advance the cause of economic equality.  Liberation theologians were instrumental in steering the Vatican Two conferences towards a more socially engaged vision of the church. While Chávez did not explicitly draw on these movements, he certainly was aware of them, and their presence testifies to a continued influence of the egalitarian economics within the Catholic Church.

Chávez accepted the premises of distributism but he did not follow them to the same conclusions. He believed that laissez-faire capitalism violated the God-given dignity of labor. But American capitalism in the middle of the twentieth century was not laissez-faire. Between Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical and Chávez’s time, a vision for a middle way between no-holds-barred capitalism and state socialism had been found. It was the vision of the labor movement.

César Cháves and the Labor Movement.

When Chávez trumpeted the UFW’s successes, he declared that they had won gains not by “complaining, not by seeking hand-outs, not by becoming soldiers in the War on Poverty” but through organizing. Today, this idea sounds conservative, but it was characteristic of a vision of labor as the primary mechanism of social justice. Chávez wanted power for farm labor, not government assistance. He had studied previous botched efforts to organize migrant labor, and concluded it was necessary for the union to develop “an understanding, a brotherhood, the solidarity of the workers in order to stick together.”  He believed that a strike could only work if the workers had previously formed a genuine community of interest – a picket line was no place to develop class-consciousness. Developing class-consciousness is relatively easy in a traditional labor environment such as a factory or a mine; relationships are formed, and these relationships provide opportunities to discuss labor conditions and grievances against management. On a more basic level, the social organization of laborers could easily transform into a more official form as a union. Migrant labor could not count on these advantages. Many of the workers Chávez organized moved every few months to follow the harvest, making the formation of a sense of unity among the labor force difficult. They were not consistently employed by one company, but would work for various different groups throughout the year, which meant battles would have to be waged against several different companies at once. Chávez knew that migrant labor had never successfully organized in the past, but he believed this only meant the UFW would have to work that much harder to secure rights for migrants.

Chávez thought that, in order to be effective, this unionization effort needed to be grassroots. When he began organizing farm laborers in 1965, Chávez was aware that the AFL-CIO (The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the nation’s largest group of unions) had previously failed to do so, wasting over a million dollars in the effort. In contrast with their top-down strategy, Chávez advocated a union supported entirely by modest monthly dues. Knowing the dire economic conditions of farm laborers, Chávez nonetheless believed that paying dues would help bind migrant workers to the union since they would see its successes and failures as their own.  The group’s first major action was the Delano Grape Strike, which lasted from 1965 to 1970, but ended with California’s grape-growers recognizing the UFW as the legitimate representative of migrant laborers and promising to pay these workers the equivalent of the minimum wage.  Because of the nature of migrant labor, this strike could not focus on only one area, and had to include workers throughout the Southwest. Chávez’s intuition that a broad base of solidarity tied not to a specific area but to the union itself was necessary to improve the lot of migrant labor proved true.

Labor and Religion: Chávez’s Synthesis

Chávez, always maintained that the UFW was first a foremost a union but that it depended on cultural and religious inspiration. He argued that the treatment they received offended God himself; economic inequality was not simply unfortunate, it was sinful. Situated in the tradition of left-wing Catholicism, Chávez could plausibly make the case that, by defending their own economic interests, the members of the UFW were carrying out the will of God. Marxist-inspired labor activists have long mixed their stated materialism with a sort of messianic fervor. They have portrayed the working class not simply as an oppressed group but as the architects of a future just society. In doing so, labor rallies have often borrowed from religious imagery or practices, especially in America.  But Chávez was different. UFW rallies weren’t supposed to feel religious, they were supposed to be religious, with Virgen de Guadalupe statues and priests chanting prayers and quotes from Catholic encyclicals.  Labor activism was, for Chávez, a form of worship.

Chávez in Retrospect

César Chávez at a United Farmworkers rally, 1974.
César Chávez at a United Farmworkers rally, 1974.


In many ways, Americans have served Chávez’s memory well. Schools, governments, and social organizations have recognized his work on behalf of the economically disadvantaged and his passion for social justice. But they have also reduced him to that work, forgetting how important the traditions of left-wing Catholicism and the labor movement were to forming his worldview. Religion was the grounding of his morality, and it gave meaning to his work. Religion in America is often stereotyped as reactionary and ignorant, with the vibrancy and diversity of faith in America downplayed – especially on the Left. In a sense, the popular version of Chávez omits the exact things the institutional Left in this country has abandoned more and more since his time, religion and labor. In order to accurately depict the gains the Left, both radical and liberal, was able to make during the middle of the twentieth century, it is important to remember that both religion and labor formed a key part of that success.

 For more information:

  1. Presidential Proclamation — Cesar Chavez Day | The White House. The White House. Accessed June 10, 2013))
  2. Etulain, Richard W. “César Chávez, Chicano Citizen .” In César Chávez: a brief biography with documents. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, 2002. 4
  3. Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia. César Chávez: a triumph of spirit. Norman, Okla: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. 23
  4. Chávez, César. “Eulogy for Fred Ross.” Speech, Funeral for Fred Ross, San Francisco, October 17, 1991.
  5. Chávez, César. “The Plan of Delano.” El Malcriado (Delano), March 17, 1966 
  6. “Distributism | Rebuilding Christendom.” Rebuilding Christendom | Towards a Vision of Reconstruction Amidst the Ruins. http://www.rebuildingchristendom.com/distributism/ (accessed June 10, 2013)
  7. Storck, Thomas. “Capitalism and Distributism: two systems at war,” in Beyond Capitalism & Socialism. Tobias J. Lanz, ed. IHS Press, 2008. p. 75 
  8. Pope John Paul II. Encyclical letter Sollicitudo rei socialis of the supreme pontiff, John Paul II, to the bishops, priests, religious families, sons and daughters of the church and all people of good will for the twentieth anniversary of Populorum progressio. Washington, D.C.: Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, United States Catholic Conference, 1988
  9. Robert Pelton, “Latin America, Catholicism in” in R.P. McBrien, ed., The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Harper Collins, 1995 
  10. Chávez, César. “Chávez Speech at Solidarity House.” Speech. Solidarity House, Lansing, Michigan, April 1, 1967 
  11. Chávez, César. “César Chávez on Money and Organizing.” Speech from United Farm Workers, La Paz, California, October 4, 1971 
  12. “UFW: The Official Web Page of the United Farm Workers of America.” UFW: The Official Web Page of the United Farm Workers of America. http://www.ufw.org/_board.php?mode=view&b_code=cc_his_research&b_no=10482 (accessed June 11, 2013) 
  13. “Public Theology: Historical Highlights of the Religion-Labor Movement.” Online Journal of Public Theology. http://www.pubtheo.com/page.asp?pid=1413 (accessed June 11, 2013) 
  14. Chávez, César. “Speech Ending Fast.” Speech, Fast Breaking from United Farm Workers, March 10, 1968 
  15. Chávez, César. “Notes for Speech to the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries.” Address, Meeting of the Board for Homeland Ministries from United Church of Christ, October 24, 1981

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