March 31, Cesar Chavez’s birthday, is a state holiday in California, and President Obama regularly issues a proclamation of a national day of service. The intent of the 2000 law in California was not only to honor Chavez, but to draw attention to the life of this remarkable man, and in particular to educate students. There’s a long way to go. Sadly, I’ve found in travelling around and speaking about Chavez that most people have little or no idea who he was or what he accomplished. It’s a cliché by now, but no less true: People often think you’re talking about the Mexican boxer by the same name.

So for the month of March, I’m going to post a series of interesting facts about the founder of the United Farm Workers. I’m calling it #cesarchaveztrivia in a bow to the current world of hashtags and listicles, but each of the facts will be anything but trivial. Hopefully some will be entertaining, even provocative, and all will be enlightening.

First up: Founder’s Day.

The California legislature wasn’t the first to honor Chavez’s birthday – the UFW beat him to it by a few decades. In 1977, Chavez’s 50th birthday was the first celebration of what became an official union holiday. The Rev. Chris Hartmire, a longtime top counselor to Chavez and head of the National Farm Worker Ministry, wrote a memo to all UFW staff advising how to celebrate the new holiday, which was allegedly the day in 1962 that Chavez decided to quit his job as director of the Community Service Organization, move to Delano, and form a union for farmworkers. (It really wasn’t the date; he actually announced his resignation on March 16.)

“Founder’s Day should be a time of memory and celebration for all union groups and offices. A minimum of one hour will be set aside for the following kinds of activities,” Hartmire wrote, suggesting the staff sing union songs, teach the history of the UFW, tell stories, and hold religious celebrations. After at least an hour of serious discussion, they should throw a party.

Here’s a photo of Chavez in the early morning hours of the first Founder’s Day celebration at union headquarters, flanked by his wife, Helen, and his mother, Juana.

CC 50th

At the UFW convention a few months later, the delegates approved a resolution establishing Founder’s Day as an official union holiday. Here’s the beginning of the resolution adopted at the UFW’s Third Constitutional Convention on Aug. 26, 1977; for the full text, link here: Founder’s Day resolution


4 Responses to #cesarchaveztrivia

  1. JG March 6, 2015 at 3:23 am #

    Wait, I don’t see Dolores Huerta’s name on that proclamation…

    • miriam pawel March 6, 2015 at 3:33 am #

      Eagle eyes, JG! You raise an important point. (See, I said trivia would be educational…) Indeed, there was only one “founder” back in the day, and one Founder’s day. In recent years, Huerta has identified herself as the co-founder so often that her statement has become accepted fact. It’s not the only legend to be written as fact, of course, and organizers – even and perhaps especially the best ones – have a long history of shaping their own stories and stretching the truth, in the interests of creating a mythology that helps them create change. Chavez did that too. It’s the responsibility of historians to separate fact from fiction and point out the origins of those myths, and where and how they originated. Or as a Chinese proverb goes, the historian is the hand that rectifies.

  2. Ilene R. Carr May 12, 2015 at 7:14 pm #

    Gilbert Padilla doesn’t count as contributing to the founding of the UFW? How about David Burciaga?

    • miriam pawel May 12, 2015 at 8:13 pm #

      For sure, Gilbert Padilla contributed mightily … as did Burciaga, and others.

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