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 VeraCruz, 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. It examines 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.
“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 one Latino theologian 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. 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..
Robert Chao Romero is an Associate Professor of Chicana/o Studies and Asian American Studies at UCLA. He received his Ph.D. in Latin American history from UCLA and J.D. (law degree) from U.C. Berkeley. He’s also an attorney. His book, The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940, received the Latin@ Studies Section Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association, and was recognized in Critical Mass: The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors, as one of the top ten small press books published in the United States in 2010.