Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (10 page)

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
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Under the eaves of the garage, in the shade of the north
wall, a blue wooden bench stood against the adobe. We sat
there for an hour or more, cut off by the cool clay walls from
the howl of the highway. To the west was a marginal dark
farm—all dying farms look dark—with a lone black-and-white
cow in the barnyard, and a sign, itself in need of
repair, that advertised the repair of auto radiators. Across
the property to the north, dead cars glittered on the crown
of the city dump; heaped high like a bright monument to
progress, the cars form the only rise in the depressed landscape
of Delano.

The adobe walls and red tile roofs of the Forty Acres
were Chavez’s own wish, to be repeated in the other buildings
as they take shape: the idea comes from the old Franciscan
missions, and from an adobe farmhouse of his childhood.
“The people wanted something more modern—you
know, kind of flashy—to show that they had a terrific union
going here, but I wanted something that would not go out
of fashion, something that would last.” Eventually the
entire Forty Acres will be surrounded by a high adobe wall,
which will mercifully shut out its grim surroundings. The
flat hard sky will be broken by trees, and he dreams of a
fountain in a sunken garden, and a central plaza where no
cars will be permitted.

Chavez drew his hopes in the old dust with a dead stick.
Inside the walls, paths will lead everywhere, and “places
for the workers to rest. There will be little hollows in the
walls—you know, niches—where people can put little
statues if they want, or birds and things. We’ll have frescoes.
Siqueiros is interested in doing that, I think. This place
is for the people, it has to grow naturally out of their needs.”
He smiled. “It will be kind of a religious place, very
restful, quiet. It’s going to be nice here.” He gazed about him.
“I love doing this—just letting it grow by itself. Trees. We’ll
have a little woods.” Arizona cypress had already been
planted along the property lines, but in the August heat
many of Chavez’s seedling trees had yellowed and died.


Car tires whined to a halt on the highway and crunched
onto the flats of the Forty Acres. Chavez became silent; he
sat stone-still against the wall, gazing straight out toward
the glistening dump. When the car came past the corner of
the building into his line of sight, he smiled. The driver
was Ann Israel of the Spectemur Agendo Foundation of
New York, who had introduced us originally. We all waved.
“I heard you were out here,” she called. “Do you want a lift
back into town?”

Chavez shook his head. “That’s all right, thanks,” he said.
“We can walk.” For a moment Mrs. Israel looked as astonished
as I felt—not so much that the walk back was a
long one on the hot August highway but that Chavez felt
relaxed enough to take the time away. But the day before,
in Bakersfield, he had won a crucial skirmish with the growers;
though he gives an almost invariable impression of
great calm, he was more relaxed this morning than I had
ever seen him. After a week’s immersion in injunctions, boycotts,
restraining orders, suits and strikes, he seemed glad
to talk about trees and red-tiled missions, and to remain
seated peacefully in the shade of his adobe wall, on a blue
wooden bench.

Mrs. Israel perceived this instantly and made no effort to
persuade him to accept a ride. Chavez smiled fondly after
her as she waved and drove away. A pretty girl in her
thirties, Mrs. Israel is both tough-minded and kind, and she
has been a good friend to the farm workers, finding support
for them in other foundations besides her own. In June she
had got me to edit an outline of insecticide abuses for possible
use in a farm workers’ ad, thus transforming my vague
endorsement of the California grape strike into active participation.
At that time she also told me that she was going
to Delano in midsummer, to see at first hand what her
foundation was considering supporting; if I cared to come
along, she said, she would introduce me to Cesar Chavez.

Because he is such an unpublic man, Chavez is one of the
few public figures that I would go ten steps out of my way
to meet. Besides, I feel that the farm workers’ plight is
related to all of America’s most serious afflictions: racism,
poverty, environmental pollution, and urban crowding and
decay—all of these compounded by the waste of war.

In a damaged human habitat, all problems merge. For example,
noise, crowding and smog poisoning are notorious
causes of human irritability; that crowded ghettos explode
first in the worst smog areas of America is no coincidence at
all. And although no connection has been established
between overcrowding and the atmosphere of assassination,
rat experiments leave little doubt that a connection could
exist: even when ample food and shelter are provided, rats
(which exhibit behavioral patterns disconcertingly similar
to those of man) respond to crowding in strange and morbid
ways, including neuter behavior, increased incidence of
homosexuality, gang rape, killing, and consumption by the
mothers of their young. But because the symptoms of a
damaged habitat are social, a very serious problem of
ecology (it seems fatuous to say “the most serious problem
the world has ever known,” not because it is untrue but because
it is so obvious) will be dealt with by politicians, the
compromisers and consensus men who do not lead but
merely exploit the status quo. The apparatus of the status
quo—the System is a partisan term but must do here for
want of a better—not to speak of System ethics, is not going
to be good enough when food, oxygen and water become
scarce. Although it seems likely, in purely material
needs, that the optimisms of the new technologies will be
borne out, most men in 1985 will have to live by bread
alone, and not very good bread, either. Famine is already as
close as Kentucky and the Mississippi Delta, and apart from
that, there is hard evidence of environmental stress—noise,
traffic, waiting lines, sick cities, crime, lost countrysides,
psychosis. Meanwhile, the waste of resources continues, and
the contamination of the biosphere by bomb and blight.

Before this century is done, there will be an evolution in
our values and the values of human society, not because
man has become more civilized but because, on a blighted
earth, he will have no choice. This evolution—actually a
revolution whose violence will depend on the violence with
which it is met—must aim at an order of things that treats
man and his habitat with respect; the new order, grounded
in human ecology, will have humanity as its purpose and the
economy as its tool, thus reversing the present order of the
System. Such hope as there is of orderly change depends on
men like Cesar Chavez, who, of all leaders now in sight, best
represents the rising generations. He is an idealist unhampered
by ideology, an activist with a near-mystic vision,
a militant with a dedication to nonviolence, and he stands
free of the political machinery that the election year 1968
made not only disreputable but irrelevant.


In the heavy Sunday silence of the Valley we rose from
the bench, stretched, grinned and went back out into the
sun. Ten o’clock had come and gone, and the blue sky had
paled to a blue-white. We walked toward town in silence.
In the corner of Forty Acres, just off the highway, was a
heavy wooden cross with ten-foot arms, made of old telephone
poles, which had been consecrated at the time of the
February fast; after Senator Kennedy’s assassination it had
been covered with a shroud. In late June, following two
attempts to burn it, local vigilantes sawed it down. The
charred remnants were left there in the mesquite desert
dust so that no one on either side would forget the event.
Chavez glanced at the despoiled cross but made no comment.

Our shoes scuffed along the highway shoulder, over the
slag of broken stone, tar bits, glass and flattened beer
cans—Hamm’s, Olympia, Coors. In the still heat, tar stink and
exhaust fumes hung heavy in the air. Exhaust filters were
first required by law in California, where air pollution is
so pervasive that the whole state seems threatened by a
dull gray-yellow pall; it is appropriate that Chavez’s fight
for a new ethic should have begun in California, which free
enterprise has reduced from the most majestic of the
states to the most despoiled.

Of all California’s blighted regions, the one that man has
altered most is this great Central Valley, which extends
north and south for almost four hundred miles. The Sacramento
Valley, in the northern half, was once a sea of grass
parted by rivers; the San Joaquin Valley, in the south,
was a region of shallow lakes and tule marshes. Both
parts of what is commonly known as the Valley supported
innumerable animals and birds, among which
the waterfowl, antelope and tule elk were only the most
dominant; there were also wolves, grizzlies, cougar, deer
and beaver. To the Spanish, centered in the great mission
holdings along the south-central coast, the grasslands of the
interior were scarcely known, and their destruction was
accomplished almost entirely by the wave of Americans
that followed hard upon the Gold Rush. Game slaughter
became an industry, and the carnivores were poisoned; by
1875 the myriad elk and antelope were almost gone. Meanwhile,
unrestricted grazing by huge livestock herds destroyed
the perennial grasses. Oat grass, June grass and wild
rye gave way to tarweed, cheat grass and thistle, which in
turn were crowded by rank annual weeds escaped from
imported food crops of the settlers. In landscape after landscape,
the poppies, lupines, larkspurs and mariposa lilies
were no more.

From the start, California land monopolies were so enormous
that the big “farms” were not farms at all, but
industrial plantations. (To this day, the Kern County Land
Company owns 350,000 acres in Kern County alone.) In
the latter part of the nineteenth century, the huge corporate
ranches were challenged for the dying range by huge corporate
farms; the first big factory crop was wheat, the second
sugar beets. One by one the tule marshes were burned
over and drained; by the end of the century, the lakes and
creeks, like the wild creatures, had subsided without a
trace. As the whole Valley dried, the water table that once
had lain just below the surface sank away; in places, the
competitive search for water made it necessary to resort to
oil-drilling equipment, tapping Ice Age aquifers hundreds
of feet down. To replace the once plentiful water, the rivers
were dammed and rechanneled in the Bureau of Reclamation’s
Central Valley Project, begun in the thirties: Shasta
Dam destroyed the Sacramento, and Friant Dam choked
off the San Joaquin. Today there are no wild rivers in the
Valley, and very few in all of California; the streams of
the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada have been turned to
irrigation, seeping across the Valley floor in concrete

Hard-edged and monotonous as parking lots, the green
fields are without life. The road we walked across the
Valley floor was straight and rigid as a gun barrel, without
rise or curve. Passing cars buffeted with hot wind the cornflowers
that had gained a foothold between the asphalt and
the dull man-poisoned crop, and pressed toads as dry as
leaves gave evidence in death that a few wild things still
clung to life in this realm of organophosphates and
chlorinated hydrocarbons.

As the sun rose the sky turned white; the white merged
with the atmospheric dust. The dry heat is tolerable, yet
the soul shrivels; this world without horizons is surreal.
Out here on the flat Valley floor there is nothing left of
nature; even the mountains have retreated, east and west.
On all sides looms the wilderness of wires and weird towers
of man’s progress, including a skeletal installation of the
Voice of America, speeding glad news of democracy and
freedom to brown peoples all over the world.


Chavez crossed the highway to greet his doctor, Jerome
Lackner of San Jose, who contributes many Sundays to the
farm workers; Dr. Lackner was being chauffeured by Marcia
Sanchez, one of a number of Anglo volunteers who has
married a farm worker and stayed on in Delano. The next
car blared a loud greeting on its horn, and a child’s
voice—“Hi, Mr. Chavez!”—was whirled upward and away in the
eddy of hot dusty wind in the car’s wake. Soon another
Sunday car, already bulging, offered a lift, and when Chavez
refused it, its occupants shouted in surprise. The car
swayed on. A woman’s warm laughter drifted back to
us—“.  .  .  
su penitencia?”
— and Chavez grinned shyly. “
Sí, sí
he murmured. “
Mi penitencia
.” We walked on.

From the crossroads at Albany and Garces, a mile ahead,
a big black car came toward us; still at a distance, it eased
to a halt along the roadside. Three men got out, and leaning
against the car, watched our approach. As we came
abreast, two of them crossed the highway to await us while
the third turned the big car around and brought it up behind.

Chavez, greeting the two men, made no attempt to
introduce me; I took this as a sign that I was not to join the
conversation and dropped behind. In shining shoes and
bright white shirts of Sunday dress, the men flanked Chavez
as he walked along; they towered over him. Over the
car engine, idling behind me, I could hear no voices, and
Chavez, looking straight ahead, did not seem to be speaking.
There were only the two water-slicked bent heads, and
the starched white arms waving excitedly against the whitening

At the corner of Albany the men left us. They were “submarines”—Union
men who cross the picket lines at a struck
vineyard and work from within by organizing slowdowns
and walkouts. Submarine operations, often spontaneous,
are not openly encouraged by the Union, but they are not
discouraged, either. Chavez does not seem comfortable
with subversive tactics, even those traditional in the labor
movement; he talks tough at times, but his inspiration
comes from elsewhere, and such methods are at variance
with his own codes. “Certain things are all right—sloppy
picking and packing, slowdowns. Or marking the boxes
wrong, which fouls up the record keeping and gets people
upset because they’re not paid the right amount. But it
doesn’t stop there, that’s the bad part of it. The transition
to violence is rarely sudden. One man slashes a tire, then
two or three do it. One thing leads to another, and another
and another. Then you have real destruction and real

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
8.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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