Many people know the late César Chávez as the man who famously fought to unionize California farmworkers. In addition to this battle, Chávez was also a loud and strong advocate for nonviolence and human rights, but what many people don’t know is that Chávez was also vegetarian. In fact, Chávez was a pioneer in terms of recognizing the shared struggles of human beings and animals and once said, “I became a vegetarian after realizing that animals feel afraid, cold, hungry, and unhappy like we do. I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom.” Furthermore, Chávez also said that people should learn to “respect all life without exceptions,” which is just one more reason why César Chávez Day (which takes place every March 31) is so important. Chávez’s legacy still inspires people to live a life that is as cruelty-free as possible, which is why we’re celebrating César Chávez Day with a few highlights of his achievements in the animal-rights community.
Chavez fasted for 25 days to protest pesticides
Probably one of the most controversial issues in agriculture is the use of pesticides in crops. Pesticides are chemicals that agriculture producers use to keep insects out of crops. According to the Center for Ecogenetics & Environmental Health, “(w)orkers in agriculture and occupational settings touch and breathe in pesticides, putting them at risk for acute and chronic poisoning.” Chavez knew that it was unfair that migrant farmworkers were exposing themselves to these caustic chemicals, so, at the age of 61, he fasted for 25 days to protest the use of pesticides in grapes. This event in history is known as the Delano Grape Strike, in which the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) protested poor working-conditions and pay. In August 1966, the organizations united to form the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, which conducted nonviolent protests that sought to earn migrant workers better pay, legal protection, education, and housing. After his 25-day fast, Chavez adopted a vegetarian lifestyle and remained meat-free for the rest of his life.
His dog inspired him to go vegetarian
Chavez’s life’s work was based on promoting non-violence and human rights, but Chavez’s German Shepherd inspired him to ask about animal-rights. “It was my dog Boycott who led me to question the right of humans to eat other sentient beings,” Chavez said. Chavez strongly believed that people had to learn to become non-violent toward their fellow creatures in order to be content with themselves. “Kindness and compassion towards all living beings is a mark of a civilized society,” he said. “Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting, and rodeos are all cut from the same defective fabric: violence.”
His lifetime achievement
Eliot Katz, DVM, founder of In Defense of Animals (IDA), presented Chavez with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. In an article published on IDA’s website, Katz said he was honored to have awarded Chavez on behalf of IDA’s “profound appreciation of all he has done and achieved for his fellow beings, both human and nonhuman alike.” In Chavez’s acceptance speech, he said that people need to work hard to make others understand that animals must be treated as ethically as we want to be treated. “We cannot hope to have peace until we respect everyone, respect ourselves, and all living beings,” Chavez said. “We cannot defend and be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them. Exploiting them in the name of science, exploiting them in the name of sport, exploiting them in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting them in the name of food.”
Chavez wanted to encourage others to adopt a plant-based lifestyle
According to Marc Grossman (Chavez’s personal aide, press secretary, and speechwriter), “César was a devoted proselytizer. I think he took almost as much personal satisfaction from converting people to vegetarianism as trade unionism.” Upon receiving the IDA Lifetime Achievement Award, Chavez gave a precedent-setting speech for animal-rights in which he said that the basis for peace was to respect all creatures. “We need in a special way to work twice as hard to make all people understand that animals are fellow creatures. We must protect them and love them as we love ourselves.”
Ana Sofia Rodriguez is a vegan teen journalist who likes to write about fashion, culture, and anything else her mind can come up with.
Photo courtesy of Rafael López