Cesar Chavez Day: A Closer Look at a Civil Rights Icon
The most legendary leaders become emblematic. They galvanize, mobilize, teach, and inspire. Such leaders come along once in a generation—Cesar Chavez was one of them.
Cesar Chavez Day, a federal and state-recognized holiday in California, honors the legacy of the civil rights activist and labor movement leader every March 31st. With this special blog post, we celebrate Chavez, his Mexican-American heritage, and the legacy he left on the graphic arts.
Make sure you scroll to the end to download and build your own mini-Cesar. AIGA San Diego wants to see your selfies with Cesar!
A Mexican-American born into poverty in Yuma, AZ, Chavez spent his childhood picking cotton and grapes in the California fields. Demoralized by the prejudice and deplorable working conditions he encountered, the experience only inspired Chavez’s later achievements as an icon of America’s labor movement.
Cesar Chavez Accomplishments
As Chavez channeled the shameful remnants of his childhood into something more productive, his quest became rooted in a desire to “even the score” for workers. When he founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, Chavez was drawing from the lessons of his past.
His union joined with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in its first strike against grape growers in California, and the organizations later merged to become the United Farm Workers. Advocating for peaceful protests, Chavez spread his message exclusively through non-violent methods such as boycotts, marches, and hunger strikes.
Faced with legal challenges and conflicts with the Teamsters union, Chavez navigated those challenges effectively and established important alliances with organized labor. Just as vital, he obtained raises and improved conditions for farm workers in California, Texas, Arizona and Florida.
In his followers, Chavez sparked confidence in the belief “Si, se puede” translated in English as “Yes, we can.” While author John Steinbeck had famously illuminated the hardships of farm workers, Chavez channeled public anger most effectively by elevating farm laborers to a higher plane in society.
Chavez, a Force Behind Chicano Imagery
To galvanize the masses who bought into his workers’ rights message, Chavez drew on the powerful imagery of the civil rights movement brilliantly. He researched emblems such as cigarette boxes and Nazi flags, scrutinized colors, and decided that red, black and white best represented the change he was after. Chavez understood the power of symbols, and he spun his understanding in the brightest of ways.
In a Los Angeles Times commentary, “Cesar Chavez Nurtured Seeds of Art,” Max Benevidez discusses how Chavez and his quest for justice were deeply linked to work from Chicano artists and performers. When in the mid-60s Chavez chose a black eagle as a symbol of the United Farm Workers movement, it quickly became an icon. Set against a bright red background, the bird exuded “grass roots struggle and cultural pride,” two concepts that resonated with the working class, Benevidez wrote.
“Chicano art was born in 1965 when Chavez gave budding theater director Luis Valdez permission to mount primitive actors on the very picket lines of the Delano fields,” Benevidez said in his commentary. “Visual artists were inspired to join the cause, eventually including a Who’s Who of the genre.”
The Chicano art movement pushed back against social norms and stereotypes to forge a more promising frontier, and it symbolized the desire of Mexican-American artists to establish their own artistic identity in the U.S.
Graphic Design’s Lasting Imprint on United Farm Workers’ Mission
One artist in particular, graphic designer Ruben Montoya, played an important role in growing the United Farm Workers (UFW) with Chavez. The two met when Montoya and his wife, Daneen, worked Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign out of San Jose. Chavez convinced the couple to spearhead El Taller Grafico, the print and graphics operation Chavez imagined. In that role, Montoya produced and printed UFW posters, bumper stickers, buttons, flags, picket signs and more.
For five years, Montoya was part of a small, committed group that published “El Malcriado,” the union’s newspaper, and other materials promoting UFW and its cause. He took photographs, created graphics and designed much of the movement’s iconic imagery.
When Chavez thought that the union could have its own print shop, he sent Montoya to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles to learn how to operate a web printing press. Montoya helped design what became the first working print shop, library and historical archive for UFW. And he trained many volunteers to design the newspaper and create other promotional materials.
Chavez’s pioneering, industrious spirit is deeply rooted in the graphic design world. His legacy lives on today as artists continue to create positive change through their creations.
Celebrate Cesar Chavez Day 2020 with us!
Download and build your own mini-Cesar below and take a selfie in his honor.
Be sure to download and build your own mini-Cesar (it’s pretty awesome, if we do say so). Take a selfie with your Cesar creation and share on Instagram using hashtags #AIGASD #aigasdmycesar #sisepuede #cesarchavezday between 3/28 – 3/31 to spread the love. Alternatively, you can download the Cesar Chavez coloring sheet for your little ones!
Artwork contributed by Jorge Naranjo, NittyGritty Brands.