Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, in a Mexican-American family of six children. He was the son of Juana Estrada and Librado Chávez. He had two brothers, Richard (1929–2011) and Librado, and two sisters, Rita and Vicki. He was named after his grandfather, Cesario. Chavez grew up in a smalladobe home, the same home in which he was born. His family owned a grocery store and a ranch, but their land was lost during the Great Depression. The family's home was taken away after his father had agreed to clear eighty acres of land in exchange for the deed to the house, an agreement which was subsequently broken. Later, when Chavez's father attempted to purchase the house, he could not pay the interest on the loan and the house was sold back to its original owner. His family then moved to California to become migrant farm workers.
The Chavez family faced many hardships in California. The family would pick peas and lettuce in the winter, cherries and beans in the spring, corn and grapes in the summer, and cotton in the fall. When Chavez was a teenager, he and his older sister Rita would help other farm workers and neighbors by driving those unable to drive to the hospital to see a doctor.
In 1942, Chavez quit school in the seventh grade. It would be his final year of formal schooling, because he did not want his mother to have to work in the fields. Chavez dropped out to become a full-time migrant farm worker. In 1944 he joined the United States Navy at the age of seventeen and served for two years. Chavez had hoped that he would learn skills in the Navy that would help him later when he returned to civilian life. Later, Chavez described his experience in the military as “the two worst years of my life”. When Chavez returned home from his service in the military, he married his high school sweetheart, Helen Fabela. The couple moved to San Jose, California, where they would have eight children.
When Filipino American farm workers initiated the Delano grape strike on September 8, 1965, to protest for higher wages, Chavez eagerly supported them. Six months later, Chavez and the NFWA led a strike of California grape pickers on the historic farmworkers march from Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento for similar goals. The UFW encouraged all Americans to boycott table grapes as a show of support. The strike lasted five years and attracted national attention. In March 1966, the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare's Subcommittee on Migratory Labor held hearings in California on the strike. During the hearings, subcommittee member Robert F. Kennedy expressed his support for the striking workers.
These activities led to similar movements in Southern Texas in 1966, where the UFW supported fruit workers in Starr County, Texas, and led a march to Austin, in support of UFW farm workers' rights. In the Midwest, Chavez's movement inspired the founding of two midwestern independent unions: Obreros Unidos in Wisconsin in 1966, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in Ohio in 1967. Former UFW organizers would also found the Texas Farm Workers Union in 1975.
In the early 1970s, the UFW organized strikes and boycotts—including the Salad Bowl strike, the largest farm worker strike in U.S. history—to protest for, and later win, higher wages for those farm workers who were working for grape and lettuce growers. The union also won passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gavecollective bargaining rights to farm workers. During the 1980s, Chavez led a boycott to protest the use of toxicpesticides on grapes. Bumper stickers reading "NO GRAPES" and "UVAS NO" (the translation in Spanish) were widespread. He again fasted to draw public attention. UFW organizers believed that a reduction in produce sales by 15% was sufficient to wipe out the profit margin of the boycotted product.
Chavez undertook a number of "spiritual fasts", regarding the act as “a personal spiritual transformation”. In 1968, he fasted for 25 days, promoting the principle of nonviolence. In 1970, Chavez began a fast of "thanksgiving and hope" to prepare for pre-arranged civil disobedience by farm workers. Also in 1972, he fasted in response to Arizona’s passage of legislation that prohibited boycotts and strikes by farm workers during the harvest seasons.These fasts were influenced by the Catholic tradition of penance and by Gandhi’s fasts and emphasis of nonviolence.
In a failed attempt to reach out to Filipino-American farmworkers, Chavez met with then-President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos in Manila. There he endorsed the regime, which was seen by human rights advocates and religious leaders as a vicious dictatorship. This caused a rift within the UFW, which led toPhilip Vera Cruz's resignation from the organization.
The UFW during Chavez's tenure was committed to restricting immigration. Chavez and Dolores Huerta, cofounder and president of the UFW, fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemmed from their belief that the program undermined U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Since the Bracero Program ensured a constant supply of cheap immigrant labor for growers, immigrants could not protest any infringement of their rights, lest they be fired and replaced. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the Bracero Program in 1964. In 1973, the UFW was one of the first labor unions to oppose proposed employer sanctions that would have prohibited hiring undocumented immigrants. Later during the 1980s, while Chavez was still working alongside Huerta, he was key in getting the amnesty provisions into the 1986 federal immigration act.
On a few occasions, concerns that undocumented migrant labor would undermine UFW strike campaigns led to a number of controversial events, which the UFW describes as anti-strikebreaking events, but which have also been interpreted as being anti-immigrant. In 1969, Chavez and members of the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valleys to the border of Mexico to protest growers' use of undocumented immigrants as strikebreakers. Joining him on the march were Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale. In its early years, the UFW and Chavez went so far as to report undocumented immigrants who served as strikebreaking replacement workers (as well as those who refused to unionize) to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
In 1973, the United Farm Workers set up a "wet line" along the United States-Mexico border to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the United States illegally and potentially undermining the UFW's unionization efforts. During one such event, in which Chavez was not involved, some UFW members, under the guidance of Chavez's cousin Manuel, physically attacked the strikebreakers after peaceful attempts to persuade them not to cross the border failed.
Chavez died on April 23, 1993, of unspecified natural causes in a rental apartment in San Luis, Arizona. Shortly after his death, his widow, Helen Chavez, donated his black nylon union jacket to the National Museum of American History, a branch of the Smithsonian.
Chavez is buried at the National Chavez Center, on the headquarters campus of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), at 29700 Woodford-Tehachapi Road in the Keene community of unincorporated Kern County, California.
In 1973, college professors in Mount Angel, Oregon, established the first four-year Mexican-American college in the United States. They chose Chavez as their symbolic figurehead, naming the college Colegio Cesar Chavez. In the book Colegio Cesar Chavez, 1973-1983: A Chicano Struggle for Educational Self-Determination, author Carlos Maldonado writes that Chavez visited the campus twice, joining in public demonstrations in support of the college. Though the college closed in 1983, it remains a recognized part of Oregon history. On its website, the Oregon Historical Society writes: "Structured as a 'college-without-walls', more than 100 students took classes in Chicano Studies, early childhood development, and adult education. Significant financial and administrative problems caused Colegio to close in 1983. Its history represents the success of a grassroots movement". The Colegio has been described as having been a symbol of the Latino presence in Oregon.
In 1992, Chavez was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award, named after a 1963 encyclical by Pope John XXIII calling upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in terris is Latin for "Peace on Earth".
The Californian cities of Long Beach, Modesto, Sacramento, San Diego, Berkeley, and San Jose, California, have renamed parks after him, as well as the City of Seattle, Washington. In Amarillo, Texas, a bowling alley has been renamed in his memory. In Los Angeles, César E. Chávez Avenue, originally two separate streets (Macy Street west of the Los Angeles Riverand Brooklyn Avenue east of the river), extends from Sunset Boulevard and runs through East Los Angeles and Monterey Park. In San Francisco, "César Chávez Street", originally Army Street, is named in his memory. At San Francisco State University the student center is also named after him. The University of California, Berkeley, has a "César E. Chávez Student Center", which lies across Lower Sproul Plaza from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union. California State University San Marcos's Chavez Plaza includes a statue to Chavez. In 2007, The University of Texas at Austin unveiled its own Cesar Chavez statue on campus. Fresno named an adult school, where a majority percent of students' parents or themselves are or have been field workers, after Chavez. In Austin, Texas, 1st Street was renamed "César Chávez Boulevard" in 1993. In Ogden, Utah, a four-block section of 30th Street was renamed "César Chávez Street". In Oakland, there is a library named after him and his birthday, March 31, is a district holiday in remembrance of him. On July 8, 2009, Portland, Oregon, changed the name of 39th Avenue to Cesar Chavez Boulevard. San Antonio renamed Durago Avenue "César Chávez Avenue" in May 2011, though not without some controversy. In 2003, the United States Postal Service honored Chavez with a postage stamp. The largest flatland park in Phoenix, Arizona is named after Chavez and features the "César Chávez" Branch Library and a life-size statue of Chavez by artist Zarco Guerrero. In April, 2010, the city of Dallas, Texas, changed street signage along the downtown street-grade portion of Central Expressway, renaming it for Chavez; part of the street passes adjacent to the downtown Dallas Farmers Market complex. El Paso has a controlled-access highway, the portion of Texas Loop 375running beside the Rio Grande, called the "César Chávez Border Highway"; also in El Paso, the alternative junior-senior high school in the Ysleta Independent School District is named for Chavez. Las Cruces, New Mexico, has an elementary school named for Chavez as well.
In 2004, the National Chavez Center was opened on the UFW national headquarters campus in Keene by the César E. Chávez Foundation. It currently consists of a visitor center, memorial garden and his grave site. When it is fully completed, the 187-acre (0.76 km2) site will include a museum and conference center to explore and share Chavez's work. On September 14, 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior added the 187 acres (76 ha) Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz ranch to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2005, a Cesar Chavez commemorative meeting was held in San Antonio, honoring his work on behalf of immigrant farmworkers and other immigrants. Chavez High School in Houston is named in his honor, as is Cesar E. Chavez High School in Delano, California. In Davis, California; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Bakersfield, California and Madison, Wisconsinthere are elementary schools named after him in his honor. In Davis, there is also an apartment complex named after Chavez which caters specifically to low-income residents and people with physical and mental disabilities. In Racine, Wisconsin, there is a community center named the "César Chávez Community Center" also in his honor. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) nominated him three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On December 6, 2006, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Chavez into the California Hall of Fame located at The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts.
On May 18, 2011, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced the Navy would be naming the last of 14 Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships after Cesar Chavez. TheUSNS Cesar Chavez was launched on May 5, 2012.
Chavez is honored with a building named the "César E. Chávez Building" located on the University of Arizona campus. The building was built in 1952 and houses the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, the Mexican-American Studies and Research Center and Hispanic Student Affairs.
In 2012, a film about Chavez's life was produced. It was released in the US on March 28, 2014.