Richard J. Jensen, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Communication
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Scholars who study great orators generally focus on dynamic individuals who were able to move audiences through the power of their words, their dynamic style of speaking, or the force of their personality. Nevertheless some people who did not possess those attributes were highly effective orators. Cesar Estrada Chavez, a native son of Arizona, was such a person.
Chavez was one of the most successful labor leaders in American history because he was able to effectively articulate his message to workers and supporters outside the union. Union leaders have traditionally spoken in fiery, uncompromising, and often violent language in challenging the status quo. Chavez defied that stereotype. He was small in stature, uneducated, and soft-spoken but he possessed a quiet charisma that drew audiences to him and his message. He looked, dressed, and acted like a farm worker. He believed in nonviolence and adapted his nonviolent beliefs to tactics used by traditional labor leaders such as rallies to organize workers, marches, picketing, and strikes.
Chavez was born on a farm near Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927. The family lost the farm during the depression of the 1930s and became migrant workers. Because he moved so often, Chavez received little formal education. Instead he was introduced to labor unions and organizing during those years. He was convinced that poor and powerless workers must organize unions to improve their lives. While he and his family often challenged growers, Chavez soon discovered that only united action could match the power of the growers and their allies.
Chavez served in the navy in World War II but was frustrated with the racism against Mexican-Americans and Blacks in the military. After the war he married and returned to the life of a migrant worker. He seemed destined to spend his life as a poorly-paid farm worker. However, in 1952 he was introduced to two men who dramatically changed his life: Father Donald McDonnell and Fred Ross. Father McDonnell, a Catholic priest, taught him about Catholic social justice and labor movements among farm workers. Fred Ross met Chavez while searching for indigenous leadership among Mexican-Americans in a barrio of San Jose, California, called “Sal Si Puedes” (get out if you can). Ross recruited Chavez, taught him how to be an organizer and got him a job with the Community Services Organization (CSO), a group that did grassroots organizing among the poor. During the next ten years, Chavez rose to leadership positions within the CSO. Because the organization showed little interest in unions, in 1962 Chavez quit his job, moved to Delano, California, and founded the United Farm Workers (UFW).
Chavez faced tremendous obstacles in achieving his goal. He had no money, no power, and no followers, yet he challenged growers with tremendous influence and power. He believed that the farm workers could be organized and would become an effective force for change if he could only get his message to workers and the public. Chavez began to organize by meeting workers in fields and small gatherings in workers’ homes. He learned a series of techniques that made it possible for him to recruit a core group of followers, many of whom later became leaders in the union.
In those early years he learned to speak in public. After each speech he would carefully analyze those parts of his message that were effective and those that were not. He learned that when he spoke to farm workers he had to keep his message simple, to paint a picture with words, and then color in the parts. He used his ability to speak both English and Spanish to his advantage, often switching from one language to the other in the course of the speech, but making sure that his words were translated into Spanish for those who only spoke that language. He also called upon his Mexican-American heritage, using the traditional language, proverbs, sayings, and stories taught to him by his mother. As a devout Catholic he used that religious tradition to appeal to his mainly Catholic followers.
He also spoke to audiences favorable to his cause such as college students, many of whom were willing to make small contributions and to volunteer to work for the union during their summers and other vacations. He undertook extensive speaking tours, often months in length, during which he spoke several times a day.
He believed that his cause was a just one that would inevitably succeed. He saw the UFW as more than a union. It was a social movement that would improve the lives of all poor people. In order to achieve that goal, he had to convince the workers that they had to undergo a transformation. They could no longer see themselves as poor and downtrodden individuals but as powerful members of a social movement. They had to become new people who saw the world in a different way. He was able to achieve that goal and the union grew in size and power.
Although Chavez preferred to speak from notes, he was capable of speaking in an impromptu manner because he had developed a series of standard arguments that he used over the years. He used a speech writer for those occasions when a speech had to be particularly carefully prepared, such as when he spoke before congressional committees.
In his quest to improve the lives of all workers and poor people, Chavez became a national hero and a leader of the Chicano Movement. He and the union were potent forces in the Democratic Party and had powerful political allies like Senator Robert Kennedy and California’s governor Jerry Brown.
Chavez died in Yuma in April of 1993 while testifying in a civil trial where the union was defending itself against its opponents. He had become an internationally-known hero. Eventually his life was honored by a state holiday in California, schools and streets were named after him, and many other honors were bestowed upon him. His unlikely crusade was successful, much of that success based on the power of his speeches. He was one of the most successful orators in Arizona’s history.