It was the hungry winter of 1968, two and a half years into a bitter United Farm Workers strike against Delano-area table grape growers. For 100 years, farm worker strikes had been ruthlessly crushed by growers and their allies who dominated rural communities. Nothing had changed. So Cesar Chavez asked consumers across North America to boycott California table grapes. He switched the fight from the fields–where the odds were stacked against farm workers–to the cities, where the union had a chance.
The boycott worked by 1970, convincing grape growers to sign union contracts. But in 1968 there was little progress to show. Strikers were frustrated. Some young male strikers talked about responding to abuses from the growers–of proving their machismo, their manliness–through violence.
Chavez called a special meeting of the grape strikers, announcing that he was fasting. It was not directed against the growers; the fast was first and foremost his act of penitence, of responsibility, as a leader for those who were speaking of violence.
Then the UFW founder walked several miles from the meeting hall in Delano to the UFW’s headquarters, the "Forty Acres"–40 acres of land west of Delano. There he remained for the rest of the fast in the back room of a thick-walled adobe structure.
He lost 35 pounds over 25 days, but there was no more talk of violence. On the day the fast ended, Senator Robert Kennedy met with Chavez at the Forty Acres. Kennedy later told a large crowd following a Catholic mass that he had come to Delano "out of respect for one of the heroic figures of our time."
Cesar Chavez was too weak to speak, so others read his statement in English and Spanish: "It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men."