Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Cesar Chavez: A remembrance

Cesar Chavez fasted this year for 36 days. Vice President Dolores Huerta was beaten by
San Francisco police during a protest of President George H. W. Bush.
(United Farm Workers union founder and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez died 20 years ago today. This is an essay I wrote after his death for the California Farm Bureau's newspaper where I worked; I'm still a bit surprised the Farm Bureau published it.

(All it takes is a sore back after just 10 minutes of edging the front lawn to begin to imagine the sunup-to-sundown toil and courage and pain of the farmworkers he fought for):

Cesar Chavez was a fiction when I was growing up. He was as distant and mythical as any of the dusty heroes who peopled the John Steinbeck novels I loved.

He was a symbol, a poor man daring to stand up for the workers from which he sprang, to speak for them, and I liked the symbol.

Out of school and looking for a job, I became a reporter for a daily newspaper in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, a place as mythical as Cesar Chavez had been in my youth.

In this place, both became real for me. Cesar Chavez was a shorter man than I expected, the thick black hair I saw in old photographs having turned a thatch of gray, the lines on his face having deepened. The San Joaquin Valley, a vast smoky place scored with a gigantic grid of perpendicular roads, took its shape from farmers and a history unknown to me as the child of an itinerant Air Force Mechanic.

Something else became real for me at that place and time: The hatred farmers held for Cesar Chavez.

He was the devil. He was "that goddamned Cesar Chavez." People mispronounced his name Chu-VEZ. One former assemblyman who battled Chavez used to spell his first name C-E-A-S-E-R in press releases.

I heard he was the man who stirred up trouble for farmers by causing unrest among farm workers. I heard he intimidated farmers into signing labor contracts with his union, threatening violence and using it. I heard he threatened to destroy the industry with wild claims that farming poisoned workers and consumers.

I heard all of these and then I met the man. In his death I'm left with a cloudy soup of feelings.

He was rallying workers at a large farming operation in the south San Joaquin Valley when I first saw him. Some workers were trying to win United Farm Workers Union representation and Chavez had come to spur the effort toward an election.

A knot of maybe 200 people, waving red banners bearing the Aztecan eagle symbol for the union, filled a small community hall to hear him. They didn't represent all the workers at this operation, but their shouts of fierce passion made them seem more numerous.

Chavez spook briefly to the crowd in Spanish, raised its spirits, and departed. The election took more than a year to decide. The union lost.

Chavez came again to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the union's radio station in Woodlake. When he arrived at a nearby fairground for the day-long party, people quickly surrounded him, stretching their hands to him. He clasped the outstretched hands and embraced the small children who pressed close to him, and the crowds fell in behind him like a boat's wake as he walked about the fairgrounds that day.

I waited until late in the afternoon for an interview, when finally his bodyguards — including some off-duty city police — ushered me into a makeshift courtyard.

Chavez sat across from me in a folding chair, his sat eyes nearly hidden behind folds of skin, and challenged every one of my questions. With a wave of his hands, a firm shake of his head, the smile of a prosecuting attorney discovering an opening, he turned each question into a clumsy attack on his union and his causes.

He made each question an opportunity to attack farmers and the pesticides they used. Cesar Chavez put the blame for cancer in young children on all farmers.

In the course of a few brief moments, the man I once thought was a myth made me his real enemy.

Chavez dismissed me, the bodyguards closed ranks, and the union leader returned to the throngs of people who thanked him for dinner and a party.

After I came to work at Ag Alert, Cesar Chavez made a stop at California State University, Sacramento, to build support for a boycott against table grapes. He still regarded virtually every question from the press as a thick-headed accusation of his cause. But he had won over another fiercely passionate knot of people at the univerity, and leaders of major cities, including San Francisco, pledged to support the boycott.

Farm Bureau and other major agricultural organizations retaliated by boycotting San Franci

Over the years, I have read death notices for the union. Some former UFW officials left because they said Chavez refused to delegate authority, made no plans to pass his power on, and wouldn't consider changing the union's strategies to match the times.

Chavez and the union denounced the state Agricultural Labor Relations Bord he helped create, saying former Gov. George Deukmejian turned it into an advocate for farmers rather than farm workers.

Membership plummeted, labor contracts dissolved, the union built luxury homes with non-union labor as investments and it lost millions of dollars in court damages from labor strikes it waged.

Chavez' 36-day hunger strike in 1988 to advance the grape boycott failed to ignite the emotional fire of the hunger strikes that launched his union in the 1960s.

Most recently, UFW Vice President Dolores Huerta, Chavez' sister-in-law who founded the union with him and marched beside him for more than three decades, left the organization (editor's note: Huerta had taken a leave of absence to focus on women's rights).

He was an icon for another age, a folk hero, a malcontent. He led with, as someone said, quiet charisma, but he distrusted criticism. Perhaps the United Farm Wrokers union has die
d with him.

But for me, Cesar Chavez stopped being a myth and became human.

It is as John Steinbeck wrote of Cannery Row: "Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'Whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peep-hole, he might have said: 'Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing."

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