by Mat Thomas
As the founder of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and a tireless civil rights leader, Cesar Estrada Chávez spent his life fighting for justice and brought hope for a better life to millions of people around the world. Considered "one of the heroic figures of our time" by Robert F. Kennedy, Chávez espoused an inclusive worldview that illuminated the common oppressions forced on farm workers, the environment and animals by modern agribusiness. A passionate animal rights advocate and vegetarian for the last 25 years of his life, he embodied these values as a model for others to emulate and urged union members to eat a plant-based diet out of respect and concern for animals. Due to his influence, many people within the farm labor movement today are vegetarians.
In all aspects of his life, Chávez committed himself to the principles of nonviolence pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi in colonial India and practiced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in America during the turbulent 1960s. Chávez considered vegetarianism to be an integral part of living nonviolently – that is, without causing other beings to suffer and die unnecessarily. "Cesar took genuine pride in producing numerous converts to vegetarianism over the decades. You’re looking at one of them," UFW president Arturo Rodriguez said in 1996 during a speech at a farm conference. "He felt so strongly about it that sometimes I think he took as much personal satisfaction from converting people to vegetarianism as he did to trade unionism."
Chávez organized and led countless strikes, demonstrations, boycotts and pilgrimages in the struggle for workers’ rights, standing up to agribusiness’ brutal repression every step of the way. Even though strikebreakers sprayed toxic pesticides on farm workers who demonstrated for better living conditions and fired buckshot through their picket signs, Chávez rejected calls for violent action, insisting that positive social change could only come about through the diligence, patience and sacrifice that are at the core of nonviolent tactics. Like Gandhi, he also fasted to call the world’s attention to crucial issues as well as to strengthen his own resolve to keep struggling against the forces of oppression. His conviction that the power of people working together for a common cause would ultimately prevail is epitomized in his personal motto, sí se peude (it can be done), which remains the UFW’s slogan to this day.
Given his beliefs and actions, it comes as no surprise that Chávez was also a profoundly spiritual man. Attorney Bill Monning was one of many to confirm this when he wrote of his time working with the UFW. "I was fed spiritually by a powerful new ally and role model – Cesar Chávez," proclaimed Monning. "Cesar practiced vegetarianism and fasting as a means to focus the movement on nonviolence and a form of ‘spiritual activism’ that nourished a movement with little material resources." Chávez’s compassionate spirit inspired people to reach beyond themselves toward a more meaningful and fulfilling life. Like Gandhi, he believed dignity to be the birthright of all sentient beings, and helped people realize how much they shared in common with each other and all other creatures.