A Critic at Large
How Cesar Chavez disserved his dream.
by Nathan Heller April 14, 2014
The history of California is a history of will grafted onto the landscape. First came missionaries, building churches out of clay and meting out God’s kingdom to the native peoples. Then came gold and silver, the pursuit of which levelled hills, remade cliffs, and built cities along the Pacific Coast. Water was diverted. Sprawling fields soon followed. By the time Cesar Chavez organized a grape workers’ strike, in 1965, the agriculture business was the largest in the state. People say Chavez fought for justice, which is broadly true. And yet that strike, like many of his efforts, rose more from scrappy pragmatism than from any abstract ideal. “No one in any battle has ever won anything by being on the defensive,” he liked to tell his picketers. High intent was a fine thing, but change would come the way it always came in California: by force of will.Chavez’s own will was mammoth, and his battle against agribusiness lasted weeks, then months, then years. The goal, he said, was to cost growers fifty dollars for each dollar spent on the strike. Ostensibly, field workers were pushing for better wages and treatment. But they also fought for recognition of Chavez’s new field-labor union, now called the United Farm Workers, and the political authority of a marginalized demographic. The strike, which began and was headquartered in Delano, a San Joaquin Valley town that lay at the heart of table-grape production, grew to represent the fate of a new national cause.
Along the way, Chavez helped re-invent the picket. At one point, he shouted rallying cries over the fields from a low-flying airplane. At another, his colleagues founded a Teatro Campesino to perform skits on the backs of pickup trucks. The strike “appeared to have no kinship with the institutionalized formalities of most contemporary labor disputes,” John Gregory Dunne wrote in his book “Delano” (1967). “There was no ritual of collective bargaining, no negotiating table around which it was difficult to tell the managers of money from the hewers of wood and the carriers of water, no talk of guidelines and fringe benefits and the national weal, no professional mediators, on leave from academe at a hundred dollars a day and all expenses paid, plugged in by special telephone lines to the Oval Room at the White House.”
Instead, there were the pickets and a narrative of heroism that aroused a questing middle class. By late 1967, Chavez had launched a widespread grape boycott. Soon union contracts started raining down. The victories of these years form the basis for a new movie, originally called “Cesar Chavez: An American Hero” (it has since lost its honorific subtitle), directed by Diego Luna and starring Michael Peña. The film, which was screened at the White House last month, was made under the gaze of Chavez’s family, and it draws out a familiar hagiography. “I’m going to see it all the way through,” Peña’s Chavez vows during one of several can’t-keep-a-good-man-down ruminations. “Because if we lose I won’t be able to look at my family in the eye.”
He often found himself on the wrong side of a decision. In “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” (Bloomsbury), a provocative new biography, Miriam Pawel reassesses Chavez’s legacy under a raking light. For years, the foundational account of Chavez’s work was an as-told-to narrative by Jacques E. Levy, a deeply embedded writer who just as deeply admired the cause. Pawel, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, offers a corrective to that starry-eyed project. Her previous book, “The Union of Their Dreams” (2009), explored the United Farm Workers by focussing on its seconds-in-command. After speaking with those who helped build the union, Pawel had a critical read on many of Chavez’s moves.
Now she takes on the giant himself. “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” combines fresh reporting with spot-checking of Chavez’s memories, as gathered by writers such as Levy, and the result helps flesh out Chavez as more than a transcendent moral hero. As he once put it, “There is a big difference between being a saint and being an angel.”
From an early age, Chavez felt thrown out of the garden. He was born in 1927, in the North Gila Valley of Arizona, to a comfortable family of farmers. His grandfather had arrived there from Chihuahua and set up a thriving homestead. His father was a profligate businessman, though, and in the late thirties the county foreclosed on the property. Chavez, then twelve, watched a fleet of tractors tear the family’s horse corral apart.The Chavezes had already started spending time in California, picking avocados in Oxnard, north of Los Angeles, and peas in Pescadero, up the coast. Chavez later claimed to have gathered wild mustard greens for food. The family settled in a garage in a destitute part of San Jose known as Sal Si Puedes (“Get Out If You Can”). In 1943, Chavez met a young woman named Helen Fabela at a malt shop in Delano, and when she became pregnant, five years later, they got married. Both had worked for lousy wages under the eyes of growers, and it was considered a coup, within the family, when Chavez and his brother got jobs hefting lumber, far from the farm’s indignities.
That changed. A few years earlier, in Los Angeles, an organizer named Fred Ross had started a Mexican-American-advocacy group called the Community Service Organization, devoted to small-scale activism: fighting racist establishments, helping with immigration forms, challenging deportations. When Ross came to San Jose to start a chapter, Chavez, then twenty-five years old, got involved, leaving his wife and four children at home each night to drum up members and register people to vote. Ross left, in 1953, and Chavez took over. Often, he’d work twelve to fifteen hours a day, tracing a circuit through the region’s agricultural capitals. Just as often, he would make this intense schedule known. “One of his little techniques has always been to shame people into doing something,” Ross observed. “To let them know how hard he was working.” When his bosses decided to organize field workers in Oxnard, Chavez was sent to make it happen.
He quickly discovered that a major problem was the use of braceros: Mexican nationals imported temporarily to work in the fields, originally as an emergency measure during the Second World War. The supply of cheap foreign labor deprived native-born workers of leverage; Chavez gathered data on the program’s abuses and sent his findings to the right agencies. He helped to organize a strike and a march, making the TV news and forcing a wage increase. The bracero program came under scrutiny; Chavez was promoted to director of the national Community Service Organization.
By then, he had hit on a new project. Why not build a union for farmworkers? He had no doubt of the need. Since 1935, the National Labor Relations Act had set the framework for labor disputes in the United States. The law allowed collective bargaining in the private sector, providing for trade unions and strikes. Yet it did not apply to field workers—the exception had been politically necessary for Southern support—and, in the decades following, they’d accrued none of the benefits that other labor forces enjoyed. Salaries were depressed. Work-site housing was grim. Health care was virtually inaccessible.
In the spring of 1962, Chavez broke from the Community Service Organization and returned to Delano, where he printed registration cards for a “Farm Workers Association.” At that point, an aspiring union already existed in the California fields. Something called the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee had been chartered by the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in 1959 and was popular with Filipino-American farmworkers. Chavez, wanting to run his own operation, convened a meeting of a hundred and fifty workers and their families in Fresno on September 30, 1962. In a press release, he called himself a war veteran—he had worked on the Navy’s ship-repair team from 1946 to 1948—and announced the union’s founding. He became its general director and, by lunch, was joining in a chant of the new union’s slogan: “Viva la causa!” The limits of this cause weren’t spelled out, which left room as his ambitions grew.
Chavez’s flagrant humility and asceticism were jujitsu-type moves. If disempowerment and overwork were all farmworkers had, then casting both as moral virtues elevated the terms of dispossession into marks of special strength. By the fall of 1964, the union had put down roots. It had a few hundred members, an insurance program, a credit union, and a newspaper. Chavez built slowly to retain control. “Cesar had studied the structure of the C.S.O., and he tried to correct its mistakes in his organization,” Dolores Huerta, his long-term collaborator, told Peter Matthiessen for a two-part Profile of Chavez in The New Yorker, in 1969. (Matthiessen helped establish Chavez’s national reputation, joining a flock of enthralled writers. According to Pawel, Matthiessen offered to buy Chavez a hot tub while reporting the article and ended up installing a nine-hundred-dollar heating system in a pool for his use; the writer later donated his payment to the union.)When the first stirrings of a grape workers’ strike arose, Chavez didn’t want to join. A strike he’d led in the spring of 1965 had been modest; the Delano grape fields were a behemoth, and he was afraid of getting in over his head. In September, though, Filipino farmworkers in the other union failed to show up for work, and growers tried to recruit Farm Worker members to replace them, forcing a response. Although Chavez worried that his union wasn’t ready, he took a vote. His members unanimously voted to strike.
The confrontation that followed lasted for five years. When workers left the picket lines to take jobs elsewhere, urbanites and college kids took their places. When an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act came up for review in early 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy arrived for hearings and grilled the county sheriff, who had arrested strikers on flimsy pretexts, suggesting that the officer review the U.S. Constitution during his lunch break. Chavez was eager to take advantage of the spotlight, and the next morning he launched a march from Delano to Sacramento, some three hundred miles, under the slogan “Peregrinación, penitencia, revolución” (“Pilgrimage, penance, revolution”).
The grape boycotts ramped up. Chavez merged his union with the Filipinos’, a year into the strike, to create the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. As his influence grew, so did political opposition. Governor Ronald Reagan called the strike “immoral” and snacked on grapes in public; President Richard Nixon later increased the Defense Department’s grape purchases, tripling orders for Vietnam soldiers. (Chavez was ambivalent about the war—he refused to support his son’s conscientious-objector application—but Nixon’s move helped align the growers with an unpopular cause.) In 1968, Chavez began his first public fast, declining to eat for twenty-five days in “penance” and “prayer.” Flyers read “He sacrifices for us!” It marked his transformation into something more than a labor organizer.
It also helped sear his image into public memory. In 1969, Chavez got a Time cover (not, as Luna’s movie has it, a Man of the Year award). The strike officially ended in the summer of 1970, when Delano grape growers en masse agreed to sign contracts with the union. Most accounts fade to black with these victories. Dunne leaves the strike in 1967. Luna’s film ends with the signing. Levy trails its aftermath to the mid-seventies. Pawel presses on, though, through the years beyond. Her story must be one of the strangest in the history of American labor.
As the union grew more influential, it got more complex. Before long, it was struggling to serve a membership of tens of thousands. Its contracts required workers to be chosen through a “hiring hall,” by union seniority—a measure that caused strife, since some workers found themselves too junior to reclaim their regular gigs. Members had to pay dues even when they weren’t working in California, and if the union called for them to skip work for a rally or a picket, they could lose seniority for noncompliance. Some wondered whether the new system was more hindrance than help. Growers bridled. Chavez’s associates enjoined him to figure out something better than the hiring hall, and yet he seemed to resent the suggestion.Despite the union’s expansion, Chavez still did much of its work. “Though one of his great gifts was enlisting support, he delegated little, not trusting others to get the work done,” Pawel writes. As early as the fifties, he’d kept records of his associates’ failures and his disappointments. By the late sixties, his frustration was ingrained. He was beset by back pain, and he spoke of quitting. If he didn’t leave, he explained, he’d need to toughen up to make things run. “I’ve got to become a real bastard,” he said, in 1969. “Just go around and crack the whip and get people out of the union. In other words, I got to pull a Joseph Stalin, to really get it. And I don’t think I want to do that. By the time I do that, then I’ll be a different man.”
He didn’t leave. But, beginning in 1971, Chavez began to step away from the union’s daily operations. Alarmed by tales of an elaborate grower-backed assassination plot and feeling heckled by Delano workers, he moved the union headquarters to a former sanatorium that he called La Paz, in the Tehachapi Mountains. Discontent increased, and the Teamsters, who hoped to move into the fields, scented blood. Early in 1973, they descended on the Coachella Valley, offering growers contracts that allowed direct hiring. Chavez, fighting back, began a strike that turned into a showdown. His union lost thirty-one contracts in Coachella and more in Lamont and Fresno. Soon it had lost members, too.
Chavez was undaunted. He put his trust in the growing profile of the movement. The union raised $4.3 million that year, and its boycotts continued to be a cause célèbre. But it didn’t win back its negotiating clout. After a year, it had failed to regain most contracts. Chavez’s long-term tactics changed. As part of a 1973 funding deal with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., he agreed to push for legislation—legislation he’d previously balked at, worrying that it would neuter his guerrilla tactics. The result was California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, securing collective bargaining for farmworkers. Chavez had continued to bristle at suggestions that he delegate some of his responsibilities. “I doubt anyone else but me can do it,” he said.
Few people got the chance. Chavez became openly paranoid during the seventies. Increasingly seized by what Pawel calls a “basic mistrust of almost anyone with outside expertise,” he began purging associates from the upper ranks of the union—quietly at first, and then in public confrontations. In 1977, taking a cue from Mao, he staged shouting matches at meetings to drive out colleagues. Sometimes he accused them of being spies for the Republicans or the Communists. (“You’re a fucking agent,” he seethed at a confused plumber.) The paranoia was not baseless—Chavez, like many figures on the left, was under F.B.I. investigation—but the reaction was extreme. When some he expelled tried to use the phone, La Paz security threatened to eject them forcibly.
By the late seventies, the union’s California roots were bearing pop-psych fruit. Chavez was much taken with Synanon, a rehab center turned life-style cult, originally based in Santa Monica. Synanon’s lucrative work revolved around an activity called the Game, in which community members attacked one another with true or invented accusations. Therapeutic work or even enlightenment—Synanon had already declared itself a religion—progressed by lobbing the hot potato of blame to someone else. Chavez loved the Game and wanted to start practicing it at La Paz. The problem with the union, he said, was that the Labor Relations Act had robbed it of its enemies, the growers; it had nothing to fight against. If La Paz could be turned into a model community like Synanon, it could sustain something bigger than a mere administrative body. Chavez said, “If this union doesn’t turn around and become a movement, I want no part of it.”
When Chavez’s behavior starts to grow peculiar, Pawel’s narrative, a little pallid until then, lights up. Was he the loving parent, disciplining his children to keep order and nurture autonomy, or the despot, punishing from fear? His private contradictions, throughout his life, were notably hazy. Unfortunately, on this front so is “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez.” Pawel’s book hews close to her archival research, avoiding dramatization and extensive exposition. The approach gives her criticism teeth—she lets the record speak for itself—but it does little to illuminate the dim corners of Chavez’s inner life. When Chavez spends ten days in jail, for contempt of a boycott injunction, she tells us the number of the locker into which he placed his clothes, but scarcely probes into his state of mind. Sometimes Pawel’s cool, recessive, just-the-facts narration goes silent when we most require elaboration. After that incarceration, Pawel writes that Chavez emerged “in the same clothes he had worn ten days earlier but”—bafflingly—“with considerably longer hair.”What Chavez seems to have lacked most was self-awareness. Speaking publicly about the challenges posed by the union’s growth, he was sanguine. “When you start organizing, it’s like a guy who starts juggling one ball,” he explained at a conference in New York, in the early seventies. He went on:
After a little while, you got to get two balls, and you start juggling two balls. Your own speed. Because even up to that point, you’ve got everything under control. Then after a little while, more people come in, you’ve got to take three balls. And then four and then five and then six. And pretty soon you can’t deal with it. And the organization breaks because the guy who’s supposed to be leading wants to juggle a lot of balls and he can’t do it. So he’s got to make up his mind he’s going to let some of the balls drop. But even more important, he’s going to multiply himself to have more jugglers to handle all the balls that are coming at him.
The analogy is strange, not least because it depends on a mercenary calculus: since the juggler has an insatiable desire for new balls, he must constantly jettison older ones. And why the obligation to “multiply himself”? Chavez seems to have envisaged a moral movement of which he was the essential nucleus. Yet, for many union members, the U.F.W. was simply a labor organization, and its viability rested on the promise of fairer, more profitable labor arrangements—a goal of retaining benefits, not sustaining heroism. Chavez championed peaceful practices but had a warrior’s taste for incursion and righteous conflict. When his followers required a governor, he’d answer as a general, dismissing their complaints and telling them to keep their armor ready by the door.
By 1988, it was clear that Chavez’s dream of a vast national organization would go unrealized. Many of the union’s best organizers had left. Chavez had passed through obsessions with “business” (he was an admirer of the corporate-management guru Peter Drucker) and with healing through the laying on of hands (he’d taken a six-day mind-control workshop in Los Angeles). In a low moment, the union organized a protest against Time, which had described Synanon, not unreasonably, as a “kooky cult.” Union leaders marched around La Paz brandishing the magazine and singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Everything declined from there. A desperate Chavez at one point proposed staffing an enfeebled labor action with alcoholics. (“A shitload of people are alcoholics in this country,” he reasoned.) The union was sued by a grower for inciting violence during a strike, and reporters found it had misapplied more than a million dollars in federal funds. Just as Chavez had experimented with pop communalism in the seventies, he surfed the entrepreneurialism of the eighties, developing housing with nonunion construction workers and co-founding a corporation that built two strip malls. Grower contracts, members, and the dues they generated dissipated all the while.It was on the tail of these embarrassments that Chavez undertook another, very public, fast. In theory, he was protesting the exposure of farmworkers to pesticides—a long-standing cause of his. After some unexplained cancer clusters appeared in the Valley towns of McFarland and Earlimart, he tried launching a new grape boycott and, when it fizzled, stopped eating in “penance for those in positions of moral authority.” He was sixty-one.
His ordeal is the focus of “Cesar’s Last Fast,” an illuminating new documentary directed by Richard Ray Perez and Lorena Parlee, Chavez’s former press secretary, who contributed original footage but died before the film was completed. The film, which opens in a few cities later this month and which will subsequently air on Univision and Pivot, may be more helpful than Pawel’s account in assessing the lion-in-winter phase of Chavez’s career, in part because it shows the imagery involved: friends and followers clustered around Chavez’s modest twin bed; Chavez himself hunched in the front row at Mass, barely participating.
“Penance is a personal act,” Chavez’s son Paul explains in an interview. “You’re really speaking to yourself, and you’re asking yourself to forgive you for your own shortcomings.” Of course, not everybody makes a public performance of private sacrifice. “This is a man who refuses to eat so that all of us can continue to eat,” Luis Valdez, a colleague, says in the film. In other words: feel the guilt and take note. Grassroots protest did not feature in the middle-class world view of the Reagan era as it had in the late sixties; the 1988 sacrifice sought to show that la causa was more than just an artifact of those crazy times. By the thirtieth day of the fast, Chavez had lost thirty pounds. He had renal problems and muscle wasting. His doctors urged him to break his fast.
When he wouldn’t, Dolores Huerta and the Reverend Jesse Jackson devised an endgame. Chavez’s friends would pass the fast along: they’d each do three days or so, and the sacrifice would continue. Chavez agreed, and on the thirty-sixth day, a Sunday, he appeared at Mass. He was carried, limp, between the shoulders of his sons. Jackson and Martin Sheen were there, along with the family of Bobby Kennedy. Ethel Kennedy broke off a morsel of blessed bread, and Chavez finally ate. His mother sat beside his nearly lifeless body, weeping and stroking his face.
Did Chavez have a Christ complex? The question looms behind Pawel’s biography and Perez and Parlee’s film. “How did Cesar become such a powerful, brilliant organizer and leader?” the Reverend Chris Hartmire, of the National Migrant Ministry, asks in the documentary. “I think it was fundamentally his Catholic upbringing and his mother’s teachings.” Chavez’s eagerness to take on moral responsibility through physical sacrifice, to lead an expanding moral movement, to be both humble and irreplaceably authoritative has its roots in the founding tropes of the Church. These affinities strengthened his project, as Hartmire suggests; they also slowly eroded it. Through the hard postwar years, farmworkers needed a political and cultural leader. Chavez’s faith helped make his ethical and organizational ambitions clear. But he also aspired to be a spiritual leader, and his efforts there had less stirring effects. Workers, in the end, already had a holy figure they could trust.
The United Farm Workers is now a shadow of the union that Chavez, in his finest hour, led to glory in the fields. Its membership lingers at a fraction of its peak constituency, and much of its essential work remains undone. “The conditions for farmworkers today are unfortunately very much as they’ve been throughout the decades,” Arturo Rodriguez, the current president, tells Perez. Pawel’s account suggests that Chavez disserved his cause, by failing to strengthen and preserve what he’d created. Yet his work, even now, reaches beyond the union’s fate.Chavez died in 1993, possibly of an arrhythmia precipitated by fasting. At his request, he was buried in a casket of unvarnished pine. Fifty thousand mourners paid tribute. Pawel is fair on the subject of Chavez’s broader legacy: “The good outweighed the bad,” she agrees. But Perez’s film frames his importance more acutely. Though the documentary includes glosses on Chavez’s organizational purges and his Synanon interlude, it is mostly flattering, emphasizing his contributions to Chicano culture. “The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm,” Chavez said in a 1984 address that closes the film. “If it could happen in the fields, it could happen anywhere—in the cities, in the court, in the city councils, in the state legislatures.”
In the vernacular of rights and opportunity, we often speak of ceilings: limits on how high a person can expect to rise before barriers intervene and everything beyond appears mysterious and obscure. When Chavez started organizing, Chicano farmworkers were trapped in a claustrophobic space: poor and voiceless at work, out of range of cities and their power, endlessly replaceable. Chavez knocked through this ceiling, but he did something more important, too. He brought into focus the bright, dizzy world of life beyond. In his wake, it was fathomable that a dark-skinned field worker could earn urban esteem, break bread with governors and Kennedys and movie stars, fall victim to the grand delusions of his age, and take great leaps and tumbles in the public eye. The barriers were gone; the system, for the first time, flowed upward. The original subtitle of Luna’s movie may have been more apt than the filmmaker realized. Chavez set out to be a moral leader, but, by the end of his life, that possibility had faded, and he had ended up something more interesting and compromised: an American hero. ♦