In 1939, when Cesar Chavez was 12 years old, he and his family moved to a well known barrio (neighborhood) of East San Jose, CA known as “Sal Si Puede” (“Get Out If You Can”). Chavez described it as “dirtier and uglier than the rest.” The barrio consisted of Mexican and Mexican-American migrant field workers who had very limited education and money but a strong sense of pride and family.
The actual origin of the name Sal Si Puede is still debated by some of the old timers. Some say it was what neighbors yelled at two local youngsters getting chased by the police for a suspected robbery. Others recall some tough guys yelling it as a taunt to one of their enemies hiding in a house. While there are many old stories like this the fact remains that the reason the name stuck for so many years was because everyone generally believed there was no opportunity for success for those in Sal Si Puede. Chavez himself said that the only way for a young man to get out of the ‘hood was in handcuffs, a coffin or the military.
At this time San Jose did not have the large Mexican population it does now. Chavez hated school as a child, probably because he and the other kids were beat and punished by teachers in school for speaking Spanish. Out of the 37 schools that Chavez attended, many were segregated and he never saw how education had anything to do with the farm worker/migrant lifestyle of his people-this was why the Sal Si Puede mentality was so easy to trap people in his community. Once, in elementary school, he had to wear a dunce cap and a sign that said, “I am a clown. I speak Spanish”. It was not just the schools that were hard for Mexicans and other minorities. All around the surrounding communities, signs such as “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed” were common in stores and Chavez was arrested for not sitting in the “Mexican/Black” section of a movie theater. The reality for Mexicans in the West, whether legal citizens or not, was very similar to what the Blacks faced in the South. Racism, police brutality, poverty, unfair wages and systemic abuses were a part of everyday life.
Chavez started working in the fields with his family at 10 years old. After he graduated 8th grade he went to work in them full time because his father had been hurt in an auto accident and he wanted to prevent his mother from having to go do the labor. Chavez was angered by what he saw as a child and hated that his people were second-class citizens. It looked like Sal Si Puede was in fact true.
In 1944, at only 17 years old, Chavez joined the Navy and served in the end of World War 2. During his 2 years of service he again was angered and hurt by the discrimination that Mexicans and Blacks faced in the military but he became used to a strict and disciplined regiment. While he did not enjoy it, the militancy and discipline would prove to be an asset later in life. In this new environment, Chavez had also come to value education and read as much as possible to educate himself.