Why Cesar Chavez Day Still Matters To The United States (Even If You Missed It)

Texas has 21 official state holidays. Of those, 10 are federal holidays, which we observe across the country, like New Year's Day and Thanksgiving and Independence Day. 11 are state holidays, which are considered optional — government offices, community colleges, libraries, and public schools are given the option to close and send their employees home in honor of special historical days. One of those is Cesar Chavez Day, celebrated on March 31 in honor of the birthday and legacy of the Mexican American civil rights activist, and in parts of Texas, California, and Arizona with largely Hispanic populations, it's one holiday that's actually celebrated.

Working as a community organizer in the 1950s and '60s, Chavez had a new but blatantly necessary mission at the time — to help those who tend to and harvest the nation's food to be able to provide for their own families and themselves. It's a cause that's still worth fighting for, and celebrating, today.

Chavez was born in Arizona in 1927 and went on to champion several farm workers' movements until his death in 1993. He grew up working in the fields, after his family moved to California as migrant farm workers, and even dropped out of school in the seventh grade to help support his mom.

But with just a middle school education, Chavez joined his first civil rights group, the Community Service Organization, in 1952, eventually becoming the group's national director. That was before he started his own — the National Farm Workers Association — with activist Dolores Huerta in 1962.

Throughout Chavez's lifetime, the NFWA (today known as the United Farm Workers) fought for farm workers rights through protests and strikes, including the largest farm workers strike in United States history, the Salad Bowl Strike.

Chavez advocated for the rights one of the most vulnerable groups in the United States, one whose work touches the lives of everyone who has ever shopped at a grocery store or farmers market — but Cesar Chavez Day is only a legal holiday in Texas, California and Colorado, even though President Obama backed it as a national holiday in 2008. Some cities go beyond commemorating his birthday — Laredo, Texas, is known for celebrating Cesar Chavez Month, and holds an annual march in his memory.

Today, there is still work to be done — and ways to celebrate Chavez's legacy, even if this day doesn't reach the status of a federal holiday. There's an estimated three million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the country — and although they support a multi-billion dollar agricultural industry, the men and women are often subject to unfair wages, dangerous work and living conditions and sexual harassment.

The good news is there are groups who want to give farm workers a voice. Human rights organization Coalition of Immokalee Workers fights against abuse in Florida tomato fields and labor systems that they describe as modern-day slavery. There's currently a call to boycott Driscoll's berries for mistreating their workers. And earlier this year, California farm workers fought for their right to unionize.

And their work seems to be catching on. This month, LA Times reported that agricultural workers in Baja California, Mexico, learned protesting and self-advocacy tactics from their experiences as migrant workers in the U.S.

Image: Jay Galvin/Flickr (2); U.S. Dept. of Agriculture/Flickr