Who Was Cesar Chavez? Joe Biden Puts Bust of Civil Rights Leader in Oval Office

As President Joe Biden sat down in the White House to sign his first executive orders, a bust of Cesar Chavez, the late American civil rights and farm labor leader, was among the items on display behind his desk at the Oval Office.

The 9-inch by 22-inch bronze sculpture by artist Paul A. Suarez was previously displayed at the visitor center of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, the 398th unit of the National Park Service. It was requested for the Oval Office by the president's transition team and was shipped to the White House by the Cesar Chavez Foundation.

"Placing a bust of my father in the Oval Office symbolizes the hopeful new day that is dawning for our nation," Paul F. Chavez, Chavez's middle son and president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, stated.

"That isn't just because it honors my dad, but more importantly because it represents faith and empowerment for an entire people on whose behalf he fought and sacrificed," he added.

Born on March 31, 1927 just outside Yuma, Arizona to a Mexican American family, at the age of 11, Chavez's family lost their farm during the Great Depression and became migrant farm workers.

While working in the fields, orchards and vineyards of California throughout his youth and adult life to support his family, he was exposed to the "hardships and injustices of farm worker life," according to the Cesar Chavez Foundation.

"Cesar's career in community organizing began in 1952 when he was recruited and trained by Fred Ross, a legendary community organizer who was forming the San Jose chapter of the Community Service Organization [CSO], the most prominent Latino civil rights group of its time.

"Cesar spent 10 years with the CSO, coordinating voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, leading campaigns against racial and economic discrimination and organizing new CSO chapters across California.

"Yet Cesar's dream was to organize a union that would protect and serve the farm workers whose poverty and powerlessness he had shared. He knew the history of farm worker organizing was one sad story after another of broken unions and strikes crushed by violence," the Cesar Chavez Foundation notes.

A bronze bust of Cesar Chavez is on display in President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s Oval Office. 📸@WashingtonPost

Read more: https://t.co/FOoed611Pw pic.twitter.com/ULaFEcWGs7

— Chavez Foundation (@Chavez_Fndn) January 20, 2021

He co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1965 with Dolores Huerta, who was among the figures featured in the Celebrating America program on the evening of Biden's inauguration.

In 1965, Chavez led a five-year strike by California grape pickers and a nationwide boycott of California grapes. The strike was followed by battles with other agricultural businesses and eventually led to the signing of bargaining agreements.

In 1966 the NFWA joined the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and this group became the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1971.

Chavez "died peacefully in his sleep" on April 23, 1993 a short distance from the family farm in the Gila River Valley where he was born. His body was taken to La Paz, the UFW's headquarters in California, where he was laid to rest near a bed of roses in front of his office, the UFW notes.

Every single day and every single night, Cesar Chavez will look over the shoulders of @POTUS in the Oval Office. A powerful tribute to a California Latino leader and an American hero. @FresnoBee https://t.co/DS2KlJ0CwZ

— Latino Community Fdn (@LatinoCommFdn) January 21, 2021

Chavez was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor, by former president Bill Clinton. The award was accepted by Chavez's wife Helen, who passed away in 2016.

In the citation of the award, Clinton praised Chavez for having "faced formidable, often violent opposition with dignity and nonviolence.

"And he was victorious. Cesar Chavez left our world better than he found it, and his legacy inspires us still. He was for his own people a Moses figure.

"The farm workers who labored in the fields and yearned for respect and self-sufficiency pinned their hopes on this remarkable man who, with faith and discipline, soft spoken humility and amazing inner strength, led a very courageous life," Clinton added.

Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Chavez's granddaughter, was appointed by Biden to serve as Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Other busts on display at the Oval Office include Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Cesar Chavez farm labor leader 1988
The late Cesar Chavez pictured in June 1988 as he joined former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson in a support walk in McFarland, California. Photo by Bob Riha Jr/WireImage