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.
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