His Harvest Was Dignity

updated 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

FOR CESAR CHAVEZ, THE TRIP TO YUMA, Ariz., was like coming home. The 66-year-old leader of the United Farm Workers of America had grown up nearby and was staying at the house of a farmworker friend. During the evening, Chavez, who had just come off a six-day fast, tried a yoga headstand but had trouble keeping his legs up. Then he went to bed.

That's where David Martinez, the UFW's secretary-treasurer, found him the next morning, a catalog of Indian crafts in his hand. "He still had his clothes on," Martinez says tearfully. "I went over and touched his foot, and it was cold. There were no signs that he had been through any pain."

Robert Kennedy once called Chavez "one of the heroic figures of our times." From the early 1960s, he and his union used boycotts, strikes, marathon marches and fasts—every nonviolent tactic available—to wrest better wages and working conditions from the powerful grape, vegetable and citrus growers of California, the Southwest and Florida. "He was truly one of the great human beings of the 20th century, to rank alongside Martin Luther King and Gandhi," says a friend, actor Edward James Olmos.

One of five children of Depression-era migrant farmworkers, Chavez saw his family exploited by growers. "We were green, and they took advantage of us," he said. In 1962, Chavez founded what would become the UFW. Among the union's members were his wife, Helen, and their eight children. Three years later the union launched a five-year boycott of California table grapes that became a national cause célèbre—ultimately winning higher wages for workers. Two more decades of struggle followed; in 1988, Chavez nearly died after a 36-day fast to protest what he claimed were cancer-causing pesticides on California grapes.

Like his hero, Gandhi, Chavez led a Spartan existence. He didn't own a house or a car and last year earned less than $6,000. Although his health was failing, his family believed his strong spirit would keep him going. "I really expected that my father would be burying me," says his son Paul, 36, who develops housing for farmworkers. "You don't equate death with a man who seems larger than life."

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