Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is the source of many famous quotes and aphorisms, including the paraphrase of a line from Polonius that we have come to know as the saying, “clothes make the man.” Cesar Chavez, who left school after 8th grade, had likely not discovered Shakespeare when the 25-year-old discovered his lifelong passion: community organizing. But he instinctively grasped and embraced the concept.
In his first job as a community organizer in the 1950s, Chavez was trying to look older: He wore suits (and grew a mustache). Here he is, second from left, after being elected vice president of the new San Jose chapter of the Community Service Organization in the summer of 1952. It is not a look that most people associate with Chavez:
In not too many years, he grew dissatisfied with the middle-class aspirations of the CSO members, and set off on his own to organize farmworkers. He never wore a suit or tie again, and changed his physical image completely. He was partial to plaid shirts and work boots. He would entertain UFW volunteers in later years with stories about how the head of the AFL-CIO had to get special permission for Chavez to enter a swanky Miami hotel during the labor federation’s annual convention – because Chavez refused to wear a tie and jacket, in violation of the dress code.
For special occasions, such as funerals, he often wore a white shirt with a Nehru collar. At left is a picture of Chavez next to then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 1979 at the funeral of Rufino Contreras, a worker shot dead during a lettuce strike in the Imperial Valley.
When he broke the second of his three lengthy fasts, in Phoenix in 1972, he wore a shirt made of manta; he said the simple cotton was the shirt of poor people. A few years later, at the graduation for a class of union negotiators, the ceremony was delayed because at the last minute Chavez commissioned a local seamstress to make the graduates matching manta shirts.