THE DEATH OF CESAR CHAVEZ is a devastating loss for those who loved and worked with him, for the millions who labor on U.S. farms and vineyards, and for millions more whose lives were changed by his example.
He leaves behind a profound legacy. For Chavez, La Causa was a life- long commitment to which he gave his last ounce of energy every day. The movement for farm worker justice and the United Farm Workers Union that he built stand as a testament to his dedication. Through the work of Cesar Chavez, entire generations of farm workers have been taught how to stand up for their rights.
Thirty-one years ago, when Chavez first started organizing farmworkers, he knew the struggle would be arduous. Many farmworker supporters and advocates were beaten, jailed and killed while speaking out for justice in the 1960s and 1970s. But the movement won fair pay and living conditions for many farmworkers and their families and medical and pension benefits for many migrant workers. Its efforts also led to bans on the use of many toxic pesticides, including DDT.
Tragically, over the past 12 years, many of the gains farmworker activists struggled so hard to achieve have been reversed. Workers have suffered an outrageous decline in agricultural law enforcement and safety and health. A new group of cancer- causing pesticides threaten not only consumer health, but farmworkers' lives.
Despite the protracted campaign by Chavez and the United Farm Workers to bring the plight of U.S. farmworkers to the attention of the media, there is still widespread public disbelief as to the extent of exploitation suffered by farmworkers. Workers toil for poverty wages. Farmwork includes the largest single child labor force in the United States, with children as young as seven and eight working full days alongside their parents. Pesticides endanger the lives of farmworker families.
These obstacles failed to destroy the spirit of Cesar Chavez and the movement for farmworker justice. His vision, guided by an unflagging belief in the dignity of all people, remains. That principle, which has guided the work of the United Farm Workers in the past, will continue to feed the union's commitment to farmworkers.
As Chavez said in 1984, "Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. ... And [as] you cannot do away with an entire people, you cannot stamp out a people's cause. Regardless of what the future holds for our union, regardless of what the future holds for farm workers, our accomplishments cannot be undone."