César Chavez Day

Last Monday in March
Actual birthday: March 31

“Money is not going to organize the disadvantaged, the powerless, or the poor. We need other weapons. That’s why the War on Poverty is such a miserable failure. You put out a big pot of money and all you do is fight over it. Then you run out of money and you run out of troops.” – César Chavez

On March 31 (or the last Monday in March), Americans in Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin celebrate César Chavez Day. César Chavez is most famous for organizing the historic food boycotts of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and for improving the working conditions of agricultural laborers in the United States.

“Do not romanticize the poor…We are all people, human beings subject to the same temptations and faults as all others. Our poverty damages our dignity.” – César Chavez

Chavez was born outside Yuma, Arizona in 1927.

During the “Roaring Twenties” a booming economy had increased the demand for cheap labor; however the Great Depression brought this to a halt. In 1929 the U.S. government began a program of mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of people of Mexican ancestry. The program was called “repatriation”, even though over half of the deportees had been born in the U.S. (The Forgotten “Repatriation” of Persons of Mexican Ancestry and Lessons for the War on Terror, Kevin Johnson)

The Chavez family was not removed, but they lost their farm and grocery store in Arizona, causing them to move to California to become migrant farm workers. César attended approximately 30 schools during these transitory years. Having completed the eighth grade he dropped out to help support the family after his father was injured in an accident. In 1944 he joined the Navy and served for two years.

César Chavez in the Navy
César Chavez in the Navy

In 1948 the Chavez married and moved to San Jose, California, where he met Father Donald McDonnell. Chavez later said about McDonnell:

“He told me about social justice, and the Church’s stand on farm labor and reading from the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, in which he upheld labor unions. I would do anything to get the Father to tell more about labor history. I began going to the bracero camps with him to help with the mass, to the city jail with him to talk to the prisoners…”

Chavez was influenced by the works of St. Francis of Assisi and Gandhi. He joined Fred Ross’s Community Service Organization, initially organizing voter registration. After ten years he left the organization and moved his family to Delano, California to co-found what would become the United Farm Workers with Dolores Huertes. The prevailing belief at the time was that the migrant life of farm workers and high illiteracy rates made unionizing impossible.

However, by September 16, 1965 (Mexican Independence Day) Chavez had amassed over 1200 members who voted to join the grape strike organized by Filipino Americans in the AFL-CIO. The following year Chavez led strikers on a 340 mile march from Delano to the steps of the state capital building in Sacramento. In 1968 he held his first hunger strike to draw attention to the treatment of grape farm workers.

When Giumarra, the largest grape grower in California, was allowed by other grape growers to use their labels to minimize effectiveness of the boycott, the UFW extended the boycott to all California grapes

Over the next two decades, Chavez’s boycotts, strikes and fasts improved the working conditions of farm workers, increased wages, united Latino-Americans laborers, and reduced pesticide use. It was in pursuit of this last goal that Chavez kicked off the “Wrath of Grapes” campaign in 1986, and held his final hunger strike in 1988, lasting 36 days.

With respect to pesticides, Chavez compared the role of farm workers to that of the canary in a coal mine: sickness endured by the farm workers was the first sign of the harmful effects of pesticides that would later be evident in consumers.

Chavez died on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona. He had been in Yuma testifying in a civil suit filed by a lettuce grower suing farm workers for damages brought on by a UFW lettuce boycott in the 1980s. He died about twenty miles from his birthplace.

The following year, his wife accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in his honor.

“It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.” — César Chavez

“We want to be recognized, yes, but not with a glowing epitaph on our tombstone…” — César Chavez

Digital History – Mexican-American Voices: César Chavez

San Isidro – Spain

May 15


Just when Madrid sobers up from back-to-back celebrations of Labor Day and Dos de Mayo, it pulls out all the stops for the week-long celebration of San Isidro.

San Isidro (1070-1130) is Madrid’s patron saint, whose feast day falls on May 15.

A simple farm worker, Isidro never had much money, never led a diocese or congregation, never fought in a war, and was not martyred or notably persecuted for his faith. Nor was his wife Santa Maria de la Cabeza (Saint Mary of the Head). And yet Maria and Isidro are among the few husband-and-wife teams to be canonized in 2000 years of Christendom. (Though it did take 500 years for the Pope to do so.)

[Iberian Gothic? 12th century saints Ysidro & Maria reincarnated]

The couple lived in poverty for most of their lives, but they were known for their generosity, giving more to the poor than they kept for themselves. Stories of Isidro’s miracles, like the materialization of food and water for the hungry, are reminiscent of Jesus feeding the masses with a single loaf of bread. According to legend, one day Isidro’s scythe struck the earth, and a spring burst forth with enough water to sustain the whole city.

In the 900 years since Isidro and Maria walked the earth, farmers have called on them for relief in times of drought.

The holiday also marks the beginning of bullfighting season. Spanish bullfighting traces its roots back to Mithras, imported from the Middle East either through Rome or North Africa.

“The killing of the sacred bull (tauromachy) is the essential central iconic act of Mithras, which was commemorated in the mithraeum wherever Roman soldiers were stationed. Many of the oldest bullrings in Spain are located on the sites of, or adjacent to the locations of temples to Mithras.”

If you’re with PETA, and bullfighting doesn’t do it for you, concerts and dancing fill the streets the whole week. Parks are converted into open-air verbenas, where celebrants wear traditional attire: chulos and majos for the guys, chulapas and majas for the ladies.

Chulo is a derogatory term sometimes applied by other Spaniards to the inhabitants of Madrid. It means arrogant. But the Madrilenos take it in stride. Dressed in chulo and chulapa costumes, performers live up to their name in a stylized dance of exaggerated arrogance.

Strange that a holiday in honor of a man so down-to-earth would be celebrated by imbibing vast quantities of alcohol and performing dances that exude arrogance.  But as the Spanish say…

Cada uno en su casa, y Dios en la de todos.

San Isidro and Santa Maria

San Isidro in Madrid

San Isidro the Laborer: A Worker’s Life Anchored in Christ

Madrid’s Festival of San Isidro

St. Isidore: the Patron Saint of Farmers

Workers Memorial Day

April 28

Today is a National Day of Mourning in Canada. Not for those killed in wars or natural disasters, but for those who made the fatal mistake of showing up to work.

Internationally the day is known as Workers Memorial Day. The date April 28 was chosen because it’s the anniversary of Canada’s Workmen’s Compensation Act, passed in 1914, which created the predecessor of today’s Workplace Safety & Insurance Board.

A random sampling of Canadians found that most had never heard of the National Day of Mourning, an effort by the Canadian Labour Congress to spread awareness of workplace safety. However, spokesperson Terry O’Connor believes the lack of safe working conditions is a growing problem in Canada.

“Canada continues to have one of the highest workplace fatality rates of any Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development country…In 2006, the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada reported 976 workplace fatalities in Canada, compared to 805 workplace fatalities in 1996 — an 18 per cent increase in a 10-year period.”

South of the border, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that fatal accidents on the job have declined since 1994 by 14%, while the number of people in the workforce has increased by the same amount. The most dangerous jobs in North America?

  • 10. Agricultural workers
  • 9. Truck Drivers/Drivers
  • 8. Roofers
  • 7. Electrical power line repairers
  • 6. Farmers & Ranchers
  • 5. Refuse collectors/recyclers
  • 4. Steel workers
  • 3. Loggers
  • 2. Pilots
  • And #1?


Yes, that crab you bite into comes a steep price, and we’re not just talking money. The occupational-fatality rate for commercial fishing is over 20 times the national average.

17 Minutes That Changed America

Overall North American working conditions have greatly improved since Upton Sinclair wrote his scathing look at America’s meatpacking industry in The Jungle over 100 years ago. His aim was to raise awareness of the plight of exploited workers, many of them women and children in dangerous conditions for long hours and for the lowest of wages.

But the reading public cared more about what was going into their hot dogs (hint: you thought soylent green was nasty?…) than for the workers’ plight. When foreign sales of American meat products declined by 50%, Washington established the Food and Drug Administration to improve the food industry’s appalling standards.

It would take 146 deaths in a single day to spark outcry for legislation that would improve workplace safety.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, the “largest blouse-making operation in New York,” was located on Washington Place and Greene Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Each day 500 workers, mostly young immigrant girls, crowded into the factory. At 4:40 pm on March 25, a bin under a wooden desk on the eighth floor caught fire (most likely from a tossed cigarette).

When workers first spotted the flame they tried to put it out with water, but the scraps of cotton fabric in the bin—more flammable than paper—turned the flame into a conflagration within seconds. Panic struck the workers, and…

“those clustered at the Greene Street partition stampeded into the small opening, pushing and shouting and wrestling toward the stairway. Behind them, others in the factory saw this pileup and ran toward the opposite corner of the room, where they bottlenecked at the Washington Place elevators…”

One worker on the 8th floor managed to reach the secretary and swicthboard operator on the 10th floor via telephone.

Most of the tenth floor executive staff escaped by climbing onto the roof and into a taller adjacent building. But when the switchboard operator left her post, there was no way to call and warn the 9th floor workers, since all calls had to be routed through the 10th floor.

Of the 146 victims, 140 worked on the ninth floor.

Fire blocked the stairwell. The one flimsy fire escape collapsed. The owners had locked the ninth floor doors from the outside to make sure the girls didn’t steal.

The doors opened inward, so by the time they were unlocked, the doors were impossible to open because of the weight of dozens of screaming employees crushed against them, trying to escape.

The fire hoses on the top floors lacked adequate water pressure. The weight of escapees in the elevator immobilized the unit. One girl survived by jumping down the elevator shaft, landing atop the elevator on its last trip.

Over fifty workers jumped out the windows of the 9th floor rather than be consumed by fire. When the last one jumped to her death it was 4:57.

These tragic seventeen minutes–and the furor that followed–laid the foundation for sweeping changes in the labor movement that continue to protect workers to this day.

Below is a list of those killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. It was compiled by David Von Drehle, author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.

  • Lizzie Adler, 24
  • Anna Altman, 16
  • Anna Ardito, 25
  • Rosie Bassino, 31
  • Vincenza Bellota, 16
  • Ignazia Bellotta,
  • Vincenza Benenti, 22
  • Essie Bernsetin, 19
  • Jacob Bernstein, 28
  • Morris Bernstein, 19
  • Gussie Bierman, 22
  • Abraham Binevitz, 20
  • Rosie Brenman
  • Surka (Sarah) Brenman
  • Ida Brodsky, 16
  • Sarah Brodsky, 16
  • Ida (Ada) Brooks, 18
  • Laura Brunette, 17
  • Frances Caputto, 17
  • Josephine Carlisi, 31
  • Albina Caruso, 20
  • Josie Castello, 21
  • Rosie Cirrito, 18
  • Anna Cohen, 25
  • Antonia (Annie) Colletti, 30
  • Dora Dochman, 19
  • Kalman Downic, 24
  • Celia Eisenberg, 17
  • Rebecca Feibisch, 17 or 18
  • Yetta Fichtenhultz, 18
  • Daisy Lopez Fitze, 24
  • Tina Frank, 17
  • Rosie Freedman, 18
  • Molly Gerstein, 17
  • Celina Gettlin, 17
  • Esther Goldstein, 20
  • Lena Goldstein, 23
  • Mary Goldstein, 18
  • Yetta Goldstein, 20
  • Irene Grameatassio, 24
  • Bertha Greb, 25
  • Dinah Greenberg, 18
  • Rachel Grossman, 17
  • Rosie Grosso, 16
  • Esther Harris, 21
  • Mary Herman, 40
  • Esther Hochfield, 22
  • Fannie Hollander, 18
  • Pauline Horowitz, 19
  • Ida Jakofsky, 18
  • Augusta (Tessie) Kaplan, 18
  • Becky Kappelman, 18
  • Ida Kenowitz, 18
  • Becky Kessler, 19
  • Jacob Klein, 28
  • Bertha Kuhler, 20
  • Tillie Kupfersmith, 16
  • Sarah Kupla, 16
  • Benjamin (Benny) Kuritz, 19
  • Annie L’Abbato, 16
  • Fannie Lansner, 21
  • Mary Laventhal, 22
  • Jennie Lederman, 20
  • Nettie Lefkowitz, 23
  • Max Lehrer, 22
  • Sam Lehrer, 19
  • Kate Leone, 14
  • Rosie Lermarck, 19
  • Jennie Levin, 19
  • Pauline Levine, 19
  • Catherine Maltese, mother of Lucy & Sara
  • Lucia (Lucy) Maltese, 20
  • Rosaria (Sara) Maltese, 14
  • Maria Manara, 27
  • Bertha Manders, 22
  • Rose Manofsky, 22
  • Michela (Mechi) Marciano, 20
  • Yetta Meyers, 19
  • Bettina Miale, 18
  • Frances Miale, 21
  • Gaetana Midolo, 16
  • Becky Nebrerer, 19
  • Annie Nicholas, 18
  • Nicolina Nicolosci, 21 or 22
  • Annie Novobritsky, 20
  • Sadie Nussbaum, 18
  • Julia Oberstein, 19
  • Rose Oringer, 20
  • Becky Ostrowsky, 20
  • Carrie Ozzo, 22
  • Annie Pack, 18
  • Providencia Panno, 43
  • Antonietta Pasqualicca, 16
  • Ida Pearl, 20
  • Jennie Pildescu, 1
  • Millie Prato, 21
  • Becky Reivers, 19
  • Emma Rootstein
  • Israel Rosen, 17
  • Julia Rosen, 35, mother of Israel
  • Louis Rosen, 38
  • Yetta Rosenbaum, 22
  • Jennie Rosenberg, 21
  • Gussie Rosenfeld, 22
  • Nettie Rosenthal, 21
  • Theodore (Teddy) Rothner, 22
  • Sarah Sabasowitz, 17
  • Serephina (Sara) Saracino, 25
  • Teraphen (Tessie) Saracino, 20
  • Gussie Schiffman, 18
  • Theresa (Rose) Schmidt, 32
  • Ethel Schneider, 30
  • Violet Schochep, 21
  • Margaret Schwart, 24
  • Jacob Selzer, 33
  • Annie Semmilo, 30
  • Rosie Shapiro, 17
  • Beryl (Ben) Sklaver, 25
  • Rosie Sorkin, 18
  • Gussie Spunt, 19
  • Annie Starr, 30
  • Jennie Stellino, 16
  • Jennie Stern, 18
  • Jennie Stiglitz, 22
  • Samuel Tabick, 18
  • Clotilde Terdanova, 22
  • Isabella Tortorella, 17
  • Mary Ullo, 26
  • Meyer Utal, 23
  • Freda Velakowsky, 20
  • Bessie Viviano, 15
  • Rose Weiner, 23
  • Celia (Sally) Weintraub, 17
  • Dora Welfowitz, 21
  • Joseph Wilson, 21
  • Tessie Wisner, 21
  • Sonia Wisotsky, 17
  • Bertha Wondross, 18

A covered pier had to be converted to a makeshift morgue to make room for the bodies.

The factory’s owners were charged with manslaughter.

And were acquitted.