He wanted others to remember him by organizing. And now, almost 30 years after his death, a new graphic novel wants to inspire young readers with the story of a 340-mile protest march that lifted César Chávez as a national champion for farmworkers and labor and civil rights everywhere.
“I think the idea of work being much more than work was a big part of what Chávez was thinking,” said Terry Blas, the award-winning comic book creator of “Who Was the Voice of the People? Cesar Chavez." “If they weren’t treated fairly, it sent the message that the people doing this work shouldn’t be treated fairly in other parts of life as well," Blas said.
Part of a series of Penguin Young Readers books on historical figures, the graphic novel was released Tuesday and follows Chávez on the 1966 protest march from Delano, California, to the state Capitol in Sacramento which drew national attention — and led to the first labor contract for the nascent National Farm Workers Association founded by Chávez and other labor leaders. The union later merged and eventually became the United Farm Workers union.
The graphic novel's illustrations are by Mar Julia, who's been nominated for a prestigious Ignatz Award, which recognizes achievement in cartooning.
The Associated Press reported during that time that migrant farmworkers carried sleeping bags and paper sacks with clothes. They had neither food nor shelter and relied on the hospitality of other migrant workers along the way. The protesters marched together with an embroidered silk tapestry of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
The 25-day march, which was described as a pilgrimage, began March 17 and ended at the western plaza of the state Capitol on Easter Sunday, April 10. While many migrant workers were united by faith, they also carried a wooden sign with the word “huelga” (“strike”) engraved on it.
The New York Times said in a 1993 obituary for Chávez that he “was widely acknowledged to have done more to improve the lot of the migrant farm worker than anyone else.”
Blas told NBC News that Chávez’s tenacity for helping others has made him an enduring hero for readers of all ages.
“The thing that stuck with me the most was his perseverance, the idea that hard work and not giving up can yield results in your life,” he said.
Back in 1966, Chávez led grape pickers in Delano on a strike for higher wages. They demanded an increase in hourly wages from $1.20 to $1.40, and an incentive pay increase from 10 cents a box to 25 cents. For reference, the U.S. Census says the median income for American families had reached a new peak of $7,400 that same year.
Dolores Huerta, who cofounded the National Farm Workers Association with Chávez and joined him on the 340-mile march, said at the California state Capitol in 1966 that migrant workers had to compete “with the standard of living to give our families their daily bread.”
Blas, who identifies as Mexican American, says that Chávez’s diverse life story can speak to many young readers.
“Any child whose parents are immigrants, any child that is a dash American can feel like they operate in between two worlds,” Blas said. “So when I was living in Mexico and speaking Spanish, Mexicans there didn’t see me entirely as Mexican. And even in the United States, if I’m speaking Spanish, Americans don’t see me entirely as American.”
Blas said that what resonates with him most was the labor leader’s prevalent attitude about standing up for one's community. "If someone has to do it, why can't it be you?"
For Blas, this drive inspires his writing.
“If I want to see something represented in a book, there’s no reason why I can’t be the one to write it,” he said. “I don’t want to wait around for someone else to do it if I have the power to do it myself.”