American farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist (1927–1993)
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César Estrada Chávez (31 March 1927 – 23 April 1993) was an American farm worker, labor leader and civil rights activist, who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers union, UFW).
- ¡Sí se puede!
- It can be done!
- Personal motto later officially used by the United Farm Workers
- You are here to discuss a matter which is of extreme importance to yourselves, your families and your community, so let's get to the subject at hand. A hundred and fifty-five years ago, in the state of Guanajuato in Mexico, a padre proclaimed the struggle for liberty. He was killed, but ten years later Mexico won its independence. We Mexicans here in the United States, as well as all other farm workers, are engaged in another struggle for the freedom and dignity which poverty denies us. But it must not be a violent struggle, even if violence is used against us. Violence can only hurt us and our cause. The law is for us as well as the ranchers. The strike was begun by the Filipinos, but it is not exclusively for them. Tonight we must decide if we are to join our fellow workers.
- Delano, California (16 September 1965) as quoted in Delano: the story of the California Grape Strike (1967) by John Gregory Dunne
- I became a vegetarian after realizing that animals feel afraid, cold, hungry and unhappy like we (humans) do.
- As quoted in Lumen (1986) by G. J. Caton, p. 133
- We don't know how God chooses martyrs. We do know that they give us the most precious gift they possess — their very lives.
- Indestructible Spirit Conference at La Paz, UFW Headquarters in Keene, California (11 January 1991)
- We need, in a special way, to work twice as hard to make all people understand that animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves... The basis for peace is respecting all creatures... That's the basis, the beginning for peace. ...We know we cannot defend or be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them - exploiting them in the name of science, exploiting animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting animals in the name of food.
- Accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from In Defense of Animals in 1992.
- History will judge societies and governments — and their institutions — not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.
- As quoted in Cesar Chavez : A Triumph of Spirit (1997) by Richard Griswold del Castillo and Richard A. Garcia, p. 116
- "We can't be free ourselves if we can't free our women. "
- Attributed in Vicki L. Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America
The Plan of Delano (1965) edit
- We, the undersigned, gathered in Pilgrimage to the capital of the State in Sacramento in penance for all the failings of Farm Workers as free and sovereign men, do solemnly declare before the civilized world which judges our actions, and before the nation to which we belong, the propositions we have formulated to end the injustice that oppresses us.
- Our sweat and our blood have fallen on this land to make other men rich. The pilgrimage is a witness to the suffering we have seen for generations.
- This is the beginning of a social movement in fact and not in pronouncements. We seek our basic, God-given rights as human beings. Because we have suffered — and are not afraid to suffer — in order to survive, we are ready to give up everything, even our lives, in our fight for social justice. We shall do it without violence because that is our destiny. To the ranchers, and to all those who opposes, we say, in the words of Benito Juárez: "El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz." [Respect for another's right is the meaning of peace.]
- We seek the support of all political groups and protection of the government, which is also our government, in our struggle. For too many years we have been treated like the lowest of the low. Our wages and working conditions have been determined from above, because irresponsible legislators who could have helped us, have supported the rancher's argument that the plight of the Farm Worker was a "special case." They saw the obvious effects of an unjust system, starvation wages, contractors, day hauls, forced migration, sickness, illiteracy, camps and sub-human living conditions, and acted as if they were irremediable causes. The farm worker has been abandoned to his own fate — without representation, without power — subject to mercy and caprice of the rancher. We are tired of words, of betrayals, of indifference. To the politicians we say that the years are gone when the farm worker said nothing and did nothing to help himself. From this movement shall spring leaders who shall understand us, lead us, be faithful to us, and we shall elect them to represent us. We shall be heard.
- We seek, and have, the support of the Church in what we do. At the head of the pilgrimage we carry La virgen de la Guadalupe because she is ours, all ours, Patroness of the Mexican people. We also carry the Sacred Cross and the Star of David because we are not sectarians, and because we ask the help and prayers of all religions.
- We are suffering. We have suffered, and we are not afraid to suffer in order to win our cause. We have suffered unnumbered ills and crimes in the name of the Law of the Land. Our men, women, and children have suffered not only the basic brutality of stoop labor, and the most obvious injustices of the system; they have also suffered the desperation of knowing that the system caters to the greed of callous men and not to our needs. Now we will suffer for the purpose of ending the poverty, the misery, and the injustice, with the hope that our children will not be exploited as we have been. They have imposed hunger on us, and now we hunger for justice. We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live. We shall endure.
- We shall unite. We have learned the meaning of Unity.
- The ranchers want to keep us divided in order to keep us weak. Many of us have signed individual "work contracts" with the ranchers or contractors, contracts in which they had all power. These contracts were farces, one more cynical joke at our impotence. That is why we must get together and bargain collectively. We must use the only strength that we have, the force of our numbers. The ranchers are few; we are many. United we shall stand.
- We shall Strike. We shall pursue the revolution we have proposed. We are sons of the Mexican Revolution, a revolution of the poor seeking, bread and justice. Our revolution will not be armed, but we want the existing social order to dissolve, we want a new social order. We are poor, we are humble, and our only choices is to Strike in those ranchers where we are not treated with the respect we deserve as working men, where our rights as free and sovereign men are not recognized. We do not want the paternalism of the rancher; we do not want the contractor; we do not want charity at the price of our dignity. We want to be equal with all the working men in the nation; we want just wage, better working conditions, a decent future for our children. To those who oppose us, be they ranchers, police, politicians, or speculators, we say that we are going to continue fighting until we die, or we win. 'We shall overcome.
- Across the San Joaquin Valley, across California, across the entire Southwest of the United States, wherever there are Mexican people, wherever there are farm workers, our movement is spreading like flames across ad dry plain. Our pilgrimage is the match that will light our cause for all farm workers to see what is happening here, so that they may do as we have done. The time has come for the liberation of the poor farm worker.
History is on our side. May the strike go on! Viva la causa!
- A similar statement (perhaps used in a later declaration) has been quoted at the UFW site: "Across the San Joaquin valley, across California, across the entire nation, wherever there are injustices against men and women and children who work in the fields — there you will see our flags — with the black eagle with the white and red background, flying. Our movement is spreading like flames across a dry plain."
The Mexican-American and the Church (1968) edit
- When 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.
The Church we are talking about is a tremendously powerful institution in our society, and in the world. That Church is one form of the Presence of God on Earth, and so naturally it is powerful. It is powerful by definition. It is a powerful moral and spiritual force which cannot be ignored by any movement.
- When the strike started in 1965, most of our friends forsook us for a while. They ran — or were just too busy to help. But the California Migrant Ministry held a meeting with its staff and decided that the strike was a matter of life or death for farm workers everywhere, and that even if it meant the end of the Migrant Ministry they would turn over their resources to the strikers. The political pressure on the Protestant Churches was tremendous and the Migrant Ministry lost a lot of money. But they stuck it out, and they began to point the way to the rest of the Church. In fact, when 30 of the strikers were arrested for shouting Huelga [Strike], 11 ministers went to jail with them.
- The growers in Delano have their spiritual problems... we do not deny that. They have every right to have priests and ministers who serve their needs. But we have different needs, and so we needed a friendly spiritual guide. And this is true in every community in this state where the poor face tremendous problems. But the opposition raises a tremendous howl about this. They don't want us to have our spiritual advisors, friendly to our needs. Why is this? Why indeed except that there is tremendous spiritual and economic power in the church. The rich know it, and for that reason they choose to keep it from the people.
- We should be prepared to come to the defense of that priest, rabbi, minister, or layman of the Church, who out of commitment to truth and justice gets into a tight place with his pastor or bishop. It behooves us to stand with that man and help him see his trial through. It is our duty to see to it that his rights of conscience are respected and that no bishop, pastor or other higher body takes that God-given, human right away.
- What do we want the Church to do? We don't ask for more cathedrals. We don't ask for bigger churches of fine gifts. We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the Church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don't ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don't ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.
What the Future Holds (1984) edit
- Today, thousands of farm workers live under savage conditions — beneath trees and amid garbage and human excrement — near tomato fields in San Diego County, tomato fields which use the most modern farm technology.
Vicious rats gnaw on them as they sleep. They walk miles to buy food at inflated prices. And they carry in water from irrigation pumps.
- All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: to overthrow a farm labor system in this nation that treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings. Farm workers are not agricultural implements; they are not beasts of burden to be used and discarded. That dream was born in my youth, it was nurtured in my early days of organizing. It has flourished. It has been attacked.
- I'm not very different from anyone else who has ever tried to accomplish something with his life. My motivation comes from my personal life, from watching what my mother and father went through when I was growing up, from what we experienced as migrant workers in California. That dream, that vision grew from my own experience with racism, with hope, with a desire to be treated fairly, and to see my people treated as human beings and not as chattel. It grew from anger and rage, emotions I felt 40 years ago when people of my color were denied the right to see a movie or eat at a restaurant in many parts of California. It grew from the frustration and humiliation I felt as a boy who couldn't understand how the growers could abuse and exploit farm workers when there were so many of us and so few of them.
- I've traveled through every part of this nation. I have met and spoken with thousands of Hispanics from every walk of life, from every social and economic class. And one thing I hear most often from Hispanics, regardless of age or position, and from many non-Hispanics as well, is that the farm workers gave them the hope that they could succeed and the inspiration to work for change.
- From time to time, you will hear our opponents declare that the union is weak, that the union has no support, that the union has not grown fast enough. Our obituary has been written many times. How ironic it is that the same forces that argue so passionately that the union is not influential are the same forces that continue to fight us so hard.
- Today, the growers are like a punch-drunk old boxer who doesn't know he's past his prime. The times are changing. The political and social environment has changed. The chickens are coming home to roost — and the time to account for past sins is approaching.
- These trends are part of the forces of history that cannot be stopped. No person and no organization can resist them for very long. They are inevitable. Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.
You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.
Our opponents must understand that it's not just a union we have built. Unions, like other institutions, can come and go.
But we're more than an institution. For nearly 20 years, our union has been on the cutting edge of a people's cause — and you cannot do away with an entire people; you cannot stamp out a people's cause.
- Like the other immigrant groups, the day will come when we win the economic and political rewards which are in keeping with our numbers in society. The day will come when the politicians do the right thing by our people out of political necessity and not out of charity or idealism.
That day may not come this year. That day may not come during this decade. But it will come, someday!
And when that day comes, we shall see the fulfillment of that passage from the Book of Matthew in the New Testament, "That the last shall be first and the first shall be last."
And on that day, our nation shall fulfill its creed — and that fulfillment shall enrich us all.
Lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1990) edit
- Dr. King was a powerful figure of destiny, of courage, of sacrifice, and of vision. Few people in the long history of this nation can rival his accomplishment, his reason, or his selfless dedication to the cause of peace and social justice.
Today we honor a wise teacher, an inspiring leader, and a true visionary, but to truly honor Dr. King we must do more than say words of praise.
We must learn his lessons and put his views into practice, so that we may truly be free at last.
- Many people will tell you of his wonderful qualities and his many accomplishments, but what makes him special to me, the truth many people don't want you to remember, is that Dr. king was a great activist, fighting for radical social change with radical methods.
While other people talked about change, Dr. King used direct action to challenge the system. He welcomed it, and used it wisely.
- Dr. King was also radical in his beliefs about violence. He learned how to successfully fight hatred and violence with the unstoppable power of nonviolence.
He once stopped an armed mob, saying: "We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we live by. We must meet hate with love."
- My friends, as we enter a new decade, it should be clear to all of us that there is an unfinished agenda, that we have miles to go before we reach the promised land.
The men who rule this country today never learned the lessons of Dr. King, they never learned that non-violence is the only way to peace and justice.
Our nation continues to wage war upon its neighbors, and upon itself.
- My friends, the time for action is upon us. The enemies of justice wants you to think of Dr. King as only a civil rights leader, but he had a much broader agenda. He was a tireless crusader for the rights of the poor, for an end to the war in Vietnam long before it was popular to take that stand, and for the rights of workers everywhere.
Many people find it convenient to forget that Martin was murdered while supporting a desperate strike on that tragic day in Memphis, Tennessee. He died while fighting for the rights of sanitation workers.
Dr. King's dedication to the rights of the workers who are so often exploited by the forces of greed has profoundly touched my life and guided my struggle.
- Just as Dr. King was a disciple of Gandhi and Christ, we must now be Dr. King's disciples.
Dr. King challenged us to work for a greater humanity. I only hope that we are worthy of his challenge.
Quotes about Chávez edit
- In college I was an editorial cartoonist for my school paper, The Daily Aztec...I did straight, news-oriented editorial cartoons. Occasionally, my Chicano background snuck in to the toons simply because I might do a César Chavez toon about how the School Student Board was too stupidly racist to allow him to speak on campus or other anti-frat toons on how they were so racist in doing fund-raisers for Tijuana kid charities--dressed in sombreros and begging with tin cups.
- Lalo Alcaraz, interview in Attitude (2002) by Ted Rall
- (How has the city changed over the decades?) In the 70's we were so engaged - that's a hard one for me, to try not to discount the losses, to see what is hopeful. I feel a lot of times that we've lost leadership. There's no Cesar Chavez or Robert Kennedy. We've lost the great inspiring role models that gave us ideas about a bigger self. We started to value the celebrity, the person who got his.
- The farm-worker movement of the 1960s, led by Cesar Chavez, was perhaps the first nationally known effort by people of color to address an environmental issue.
- Luke Cole and Sheila Foster From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (2000)
- racial and ethnic minorities were being environmentally-and economically-exploited in ways that didn't involve incinerators or dumps. Between 1965 and 1971, for example, under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, Mexican farmworkers in California launched a historic resistance movement to organize a union not only in the interest of raising wages and improving working conditions but also to combat pesticide abuse, which was notorious for making workers sick.
- Dina Gilio-Whitaker As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock (2019)
- I was very impressed with Cesar Chavez's grasp of organizing strategy. He started organizing around small fruit to start with, where there was a semipermanent work force. That gave the union continuity. These workers didn't move around to follow the different crops. You didn't start fresh every time there was a strike.
- Dorothy Ray Healey California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party (1990)
- Cesar, a priest, a minister, and nine farmworkers were arrested for going into a camp in Borrego Springs, just to get the workers’ clothes after the workers were fired for union activity. They were arrested, stripped naked, and chained by the officers.
- There have been incidents of violence against the union, many of them, and it has taken all that Cesar can do and the rest of the people can do to keep workers nonviolent.
- The people in the union have to take a tremendous amount of harassment, such as the materials of State Senator Hugh Burns’ Committee on Un-American Activities in California. The man who made up that committee report was sitting in his home in Three Rivers. He never once went to Delano. Yet, he wrote a report which has been used all over the country in which he tried to redbait the members of the union. Among other mistruths, he says 3 years of Cesar Chavez’ life are missing, and suggests he was getting some kind of subversive training. Those are the 3 years he spent in the U.S. Navy. That should be put in the record.
- Now when we first tried to get this plan passed, many of the growers were very upset about it. They said you have to go through an insurance company. We are very lucky that César Chávez is a grammar-school dropout and he hasn't been educated to think that insurance is a way of life. He said he wasn't going to give any of his money to an insurance company, any of the workers' money.
- Dolores Huerta, 1974 speech in Voices of Multicultural America: Notable Speeches Delivered by African, Asian, Hispanic and Native Americans, 1790-1995 (1995)
- Within the next year they are spending millions of dollars to destroy the United Farm Workers. They are spending millions of dollars to tell what a bad administrator César Chávez is. Have you seen these articles in the New York Times and Time magazine? They say César Chávez is a bad administrator. What they really mean is he is the wrong color. And if he were a good administrator.... Can you imagine five clinics, a medical plan, a credit union, a retirement center for farm workers, fantastic increases in wages, the removal of the labor contract system-all of this César did in a few short years. What would he do if he was a good administrator?
- Dolores Huerta, 1974 speech in Voices of Multicultural America: Notable Speeches Delivered by African, Asian, Hispanic and Native Americans, 1790-1995 (1995)
- Chavez fought illegal immigration tenaciously. In 1969, he marched to the Mexican border to protest farmers' use of illegal aliens as strikebreakers. He was joined by Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Senator Walter Mondale. In the mid 1970s, he conducted the “Illegals Campaign” to identify and report illegal workers, “an effort he deemed second in importance only to the boycott” (of produce from non-unionized farms), according to Pawel. She quotes a memo from Chavez that said, “If we can get the illegals out of California, we will win the strike overnight.” The Illegals Campaign didn't just report illegals to the (unresponsive) federal authorities. Cesar sent his cousin, ex-con Manuel Chavez, down to the border to set up a “wet line” (as in “wetbacks”) to do the job the Border Patrol wasn't being allowed to do. Unlike the Minutemen of a few years ago, who arrived at the border with no more than lawn chairs and binoculars, the United Farm Workers patrols were willing to use direct methods when persuasion failed. Housed in a series of tents along the Arizona border, the crews in the wet line sometimes beat up illegals, the “cesarchavistas” employing violence even more widely on the Mexican side of the border to prevent crossings.
- One of the heroic figures of our time.
- [L]ate one night in 1962, there was a knock at the door and there were three men. One of them was Cesar Chavez. And the next thing I knew, they were sitting around our table talking about a union...Cesar said, "The women have to be involved. They're the ones working out in the fields with their husbands. If you can take the women out to the fields, you can certainly take them to meetings." So I sat up straight and said to myself, "That's what I want!"
- Jessie Lopez De La Cruz, American Women Activists' Writings: An Anthology, 1637-2002
- Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity. ... You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., in a telegram to Chavez during his first fast. (1968)
- Forty years ago, here in the United States, there were true activist visionaries and mass movements to enact those visions...There was a César Chávez and a viable farm workers' movement, propped up by the agit-prop of a teatro para un movimiento campesino.
- Cherríe Moraga A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness (2011)
- Many years ago, when I was merely a vegetarian, I met the great Cesar Chavez, and he said to me: "If you are interested in preventing animal suffering, the first thing you should give up is eggs and milk, because the animals who produce those foods lead the most unhappy lives. You would do better to eat meat and stop eating eggs and dairy products." I was shocked, since I had no intention of eating meat but had never thought of giving up eggs or dairy products. But when I looked into it I realized he was right, and now, years later, after I have studied the matter up close, I know for certain that he was completely correct about the cruel treatment of the animals raised for such products. The advantages of a vegan diet are enormous for our health, for the environment, for the animals themselves.
- Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals (Ballantine Books, 2004), Conclusion, p. 226.
- The reality is that many businesses, large and small, have long used undocumented workers to pad their bottom lines. Just consider the agricultural workforce. In California alone-where the $45 billion-a-year agricultural sector supplies more than half the produce consumed in the United States-between 40 and 50 percent of the workforce is made up of undocumented workers. No wonder California has been the site of some of the most important immigrant labor struggles, brought to the consciousness of many Americans in the 1960s and 1970s by the great United Farm Workers leader, Cesar Chavez. That struggle continues today.
- Bernie Sanders Our Revolution (2016)
- Whether one views the Chicano Student Movement as a political quest or as a nationalist struggle, one cannot subsume its identity under the rubric of "Me, too." Although there were a few connections to African-American civil rights groups, with SNCC veterans Betita Martínez and María Varela bringing their organizing skills and experiences to the Southwest, the Chicano Movement was very much its own entity with its own genesis. However, in U.S. history textbooks, Mexicans are typically relegated to the end of the book and pictured as either followers of Cesar Chávez or student activists emulating African Americans. It was not that they wanted a piece of the "American pie," they wanted the freedom to bake their own pan dulce.
- Vicki L. Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America
- Activists like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were also fighting in the 1960s and '70s for Latinx families to have safer environments. Their activism shouldn't have been considered separate from the Earth Day movement, but it was. Not only did their work contribute to the overall movement, but their efforts helped lead to the ban on the use of harmful pesticides that impacted farmworker safety and increased awareness of environmental justice within the Latinx community. However, because of racism, xenophobia (fear of immigrants), and classism, these activists were excluded.
- Leah Thomas The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet (2022)
- And what about César Chávez in California? What's the history of the campesino and what is he fighting for? These are our people too. And in Texas our brothers and sisters have a struggle. Just what is this all about? What is happening to our people? We feel what is happening, let's learn about it and let's start speaking up. Let's talk to each other and let's not be afraid to be heard.
- 1969 article in Enriqueta Vasquez and the Chicano Movement: Writings from El Grito del Norte (2006)
- Abnormal rates of cancer for farmworkers in California aroused the Chicano community. Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers fasted for thirty-five days in 1988 to call attention to these conditions.
- Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
- The name of Cesar Chavez is an important name in the history of American social movements. He was one of the leaders of a new movement among Latino farmworkers in the West-a particularly charismatic and effective leader.
- Howard Zinn, Truth Has a Power of Its Own (2022)
Elizabeth Martinez, De Colores Means All of Us (1998) edit
- It is true that nationwide Black protest really did overshadow Latino protest in the 1960s, so that giving less attention to the latter is appropriate. But the absence of information about protest by other peoples of color is too extreme to be explained away on this basis...A more helpful explanation related to the media-might be that no leaders with the vast, multifaceted, international stature of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X emerged among Latinos (or Asians and Indians). César Chávez came closest.
- When César died in his sleep at the age of 66 on April 22, 1993, most people in the United States were unaware that his life had set an unsurpassed example of persistent struggle for human rights, day after day, week after week, year after year. Most people would not understand, for example, why César Chávez was compared to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. by more than one speaker at the April 29 funeral, including Rep. Ron Dellums, who said: "César stands with the giants of this planet as an advocate of nonviolence as a way to challenge the powerful." Most people shamefully underestimated a heroic figure in the twentieth-century struggle for social justice, and an extraordinary labor leader.
- As we marched on April 29 through flat, dusty farmland and past almond orchards, we were walking with Chávez' strengths. We walked with someone who fought for 40 years to gain labor rights and human rights for the most disenfranchised and impoverished workers in the United States. Under his leadership, they ceased to be faceless immigrants whom the dominant society dismissed as subhuman, disposable. Never again would the public be so unaware of farmworker poverty and exploitation.
- César Chávez (pronounced "CHA-vez") died long after the height of the farmworker cause, like the entire Chicano movement, had been forced to spend much energy defending its small gains of the 1960s.
- "The Story of Cesar Chavez" United Farmworker's official biography of Chavez
- "The Chavez Legacy" ~ University of Texas
- Presidential Medal of Freedom
- "Si Se Puede! Cesar E. Chavez and His Legacy" at UCLA
- Cesar Chavez Foundation
- The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworker's Struggle PBS Documentary
- "The 1965 Grape Boycott: A Case Study in Strategy"
- Musical inspired by the life of Cesar Chavez
- Chávez at The My Hero Project
- Farmworker Movement Documentation Project