His Rallying Cry was "Si, Se Puede"

Why César Chávez’s Legacy is Important

By Joy Yi

 Photo: Dallas Morning News

Photo: Dallas Morning News

Before the first African-American United States president took the national stage and uttered the words “Yes, we can,” a 35-year-old Mexican-American- almost 5 decades prior - left a stable job in San Jose, CA to improve the conditions of migrant farmworkers and soon after uttered the words “Si, se puede.”

César Chávez (1927-1993) is most known for creating the United Farm Workers, but he did a lot more. Through boycotts, nonviolent protests, and community organizing, Chávez championed labor rights and improved pay, working conditions, and housing for migrant workers locally. Chávez also led nationwide boycotts on these same issues. In 1965, for example, Chavez joined Filipino farmworkers to strike and boycott grapes.

Chávez believed nonviolence was an active form of resistance. In 1968, when younger strikers thought violence was a better strategy, Chavez - following the examples of Gandhi and Dr. King Jr - participated in a personal 25 day fast, refusing to eat in order to rededicate the movement to nonviolence. His fast - and ultimately, his leadership- ignited the masses. Violence discontinued. Thousands joined the grape strike and boycott. By 1970 - five years after the boycott began - the boycott was declared a success. Grape workers signed their first union contracts and won better labor conditions and better pay.

“The worth of humans is involved here...Twenty years ago over 17 million Americans united in a grape boycott campaign that transformed the simple act of refusing to buy grapes into a powerful and effective force against poverty and injustice.”
—  César Chávez, May 1986 (Wrath of Grapes speech)

Today, the refrain “Si, se puede” translated to “Yes, we can” continues to be a unifying affirmation at marches and rallies. It was used as a campaign slogan during President Obama’s 2008 election and most recently, the Women’s March on Washington. The meaning behind the refrain remains largely the same as it did when Chavez first proclaimed them: in the face of strong opposition, the will of the people, together - even the most vulnerable and poor -  will prevail. It is a refrain that unites, ignites, and empowers all people to action.

Chavez’s values of nonviolence, community, innovation, sacrifice, commitment, and determination are all values the Nashman Center believes is at the core of a vibrant, democratic, and thriving society.

At the George Washington University, a group of students are organizing to celebrate the life and legacy of César Chávez. They call themselves César Chávez GW (CCGW), and their hope is to create an annual day of celebration, service, and reflection every March 31 at GW. This year, the Honey W. Nashman Center will partner with CCGW for César Chávez Day and the Campaign for Change Grant Competition. Along with the day of service, there are other events you can participate in to become informed and involved.

  • Tuesday, Feb. 21 (11am-4pm): Tabling at Kogan, learn more about the event and participate in an interactive reflection activity
  • Thursday, Feb. 23 (6pm-8pm): “Cesar’s Last Fast” Documentary Screening at Rome/ Phillips Hall 209
  • Friday, March 31 (10am-8pm): César Chávez Day.
    • 10am-4pm at Marvin Center: art workshops, students and DC community orgs displays, art exhibitions, performances, etc.
    • 4pm-8pm at Jack Morton Auditorium, speakers will cover a range of topics related to immigration, contemporary Latinx  issues, youth activism, biculturalism, a remembrance of the UFW and where it stands today, contemporary issues regarding labor rights, etc. (and performances!) 

Questions? Email cesarchavezgw@gmail.com