Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (2 page)

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
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The FBI took Fernando away in handcuffs. He went on
trial at the federal courthouse in Fresno. Cesar stood by his son
and testified in his defense. As Cesar, Helen, and other family
members were leaving for court early one morning from their
little house on Kensington Street in Delano, their youngest
child, twelve-year-old Anthony, started crying. “I don’t want
my brother to go to jail.” They had to leave him behind.

The famed criminal defense attorney Michael Tiger, a law
school classmate of UFW general counsel Jerry Cohen, represented
Fernando. Tiger exposed government misconduct in
singling out Fernando for special treatment because of his
dad. The conservative federal judge presiding over the trial
dismissed the jury and ordered a directed verdict of acquittal.
Cesar did not easily express personal sentiments, but Fernando
knew his father was proud of him, and in later years
they worked to patch things up.


Cesar figured that the best way to spend time with his children
was to have them work with him. All of his kids helped
pass out leaflets in the union’s early days, before there was a
staff. Some worked in UFW field and boycott offices. Linda,
Paul, Elizabeth, and Anthony stayed with the movement for
many years.

Paul’s father handed him books from his library by Tolstoy
and Dostoyevsky, instilling in him a lifelong interest in reading.
(Three walls of Cesar’s office-library are filled with floor-to-ceiling
bookshelves that reflect his eclectic reading interests.)

The UFW’s success in union elections after California’s
1975 farm labor law passed created a big demand for negotiators.
There was a heated debate among union executive board
members over how to meet that demand. Some wanted to
bring in well-paid and experienced negotiators from the outside
to help farm workers navigate the complexities of bargaining,
which requires knowledge of economics, labor law, English
composition, and math (to cost out contract proposals).

Cesar fervently believed in the ability of farm workers and
current movement staff to learn and exercise those skills. He
would tell his children, “You will have a lot of opportunities in
your life because of the work we’re doing in the union. But
you will never know what it feels like to grow up and not have
any opportunities.” Cesar said that he and his brother Richard
were raised thinking that they would spend their lives laboring
in the fields. So inspiring people to believe in themselves,
preparing them, and giving them opportunities was a big part
of Cesar’s legacy—and it is a big part of why he has been so
honored since his passing.

He was also mindful that everyone has to produce, which is
why he set rigorous standards and demanded they be met and
why he couldn’t stand to be around lazy people.

Cesar prevailed and established a school to train negotiators
in the rambling seventeen-thousand-square-foot Mission-style
structure on the north side of La Paz’s 187 acres named
for Fred Ross, his mentor and teacher. Some board members
wanted applicants to have college degrees. Cesar insisted on
also including young people, including those from farm worker
families, who picked up the trash at La Paz, traveled with him
in his security detail, and worked in the print shop.

Many from humble circumstances who graduated from
the negotiating school—and from subsequent schools to train
union organizers and contract administrators—went on to
successful careers in other unions, government, and the

One of those selected for the negotiating school was Paul
Chavez, who had worked as an apprentice printer. “Throughout
my life, my father always had more faith in me than I did,” Paul
recalled. “He constantly urged me to do more. At first I thought
it was because of the love a father has for his son. But soon I
saw that what he did for me he did for others.” The love Cesar
felt for his children he also felt for an entire community.

Sometimes Cesar would give up assistants. If they are good,
one feels a natural inclination to hold on to them. Not Cesar.
If he spotted young people with talent, especially if they hailed
from a farm worker or working-class background, he convinced
them that they could be accountants, administrators, or attorneys.
He wanted results in the office but saw the greater good
of helping people fulfill their dreams—dreams some of them
didn’t even know they had at the time.

He gave hundreds of men and women opportunities that
no one would have offered him when he was a young migrant
worker with an eighth-grade education. Thousands more
credit the experience and training of working with Cesar and
the UFW for lifetimes of social activism and professional success.
They include many current leaders of major unions, university
professors, prominent attorneys and physicians, public
officials, and community activists.

Wasn’t that what he wanted for farm workers too: the
chance to negotiate with their employers as equals across the
bargaining table—so they wouldn’t have to just take orders all
their lives?

Cesar also spent his career speaking against machismo,
constantly working to bring women into the ranks of the union,
and getting them to be leaders, organizers, and staff.

He was easy to lose in a crowd. He looked, dressed, spoke,
and acted like the people he was committed to helping. Farm
workers and other Latinos especially would look at him and
say to themselves and one another, “He could be my father or
my grandfather or my son or my brother. And if Cesar Chavez
can do these great things, maybe I can too.”

He said that his job as an organizer was helping ordinary
people do extraordinary things. He made everyone in the
movement believe that the job he or she was doing was important.
It didn’t matter if you were an attorney representing
the union in court or someone cooking in the strike kitchen.
He made people believe in themselves—those whom almost
no one considered very important. He gave them faith that
they could challenge and overcome one of California’s richest

Maybe that’s why Cesar succeeded where others with
much better educations and a lot more money tried and failed
for a hundred years before him. It is a measure of his greatness
that he inspired hope and confidence in people who
never had them.


Cesar could be incredibly generous in helping people grow
and investing them with the authority to do their work. Jerry
Cohen, the UFW’s longtime lead attorney, is still mystified by
critics who claim that Cesar refused to delegate authority.
“Cesar gave me too much authority” in hammering out union
contracts with growers and jurisdictional pacts with the Teamsters
Union or waging crucial legal fights, he says.

“Once he had a sense of confidence in a person, Cesar had
no problem delegating authority,” Jerry recalls. “He gave me
carte blanche to do whatever the hell I wanted. He’d say to
just engage in the fight and use whatever tools I needed. ‘I’ll
support you whether you win or lose in court,’ Cesar would
say. And he would. Of course, I kept him informed of whatever
I was doing all the time.”

That confidence helped enact California’s pioneering Agricultural
Labor Relations Act, considered one of Cesar’s crowning
achievements. To get this collective bargaining bill passed,
Cesar and Jerry discussed “the key principles of what we
wanted to see in the legislation, and then Cesar said, ‘Keep
negotiating. Don’t give up on what we think is essential, but
get whatever you can.’”

At one point when the recently elected thirty-six-year-old
governor Jerry Brown was resisting their efforts, Jerry Cohen
and Cesar devised a good-cop, bad-cop routine: Cesar spoke
around the state, saying, “Jerry Brown doesn’t know the difference
between a tomato and a potato,” while Jerry Cohen
bargained with the governor in Sacramento.

Cesar also granted great autonomy to the UFW boycott
operations across the continent. He encouraged boycotters to
come up with whatever strategies and tactics worked for them
in their cities. As a result, people generated innovative ideas
that succeeded because Cesar gave them the support they

When he knew that people were honestly reporting results
and trying their best, Cesar left them alone. If he worried that
a city wasn’t accurately reporting, he’d jump in, demand an
accounting, and fix the problems.

I experienced the same thing as his spokesman. When major
public campaigns were under way, I met with Cesar and others
to help fashion the union’s message or position. After that, I
didn’t need to check with Cesar again when reporters called,
unless they raised new issues or an inquiry took a different
twist. He just trusted me to do my job.

What it came down to was that Cesar delegated a lot of
authority to people he had confidence in; he didn’t delegate
much to people he didn’t.

That doesn’t mean he wasn’t constantly harping on everyone
in the union “about petty things like phone bills,” Jerry
Cohen remembers. “He was a pain in the ass over that. But
not on the major stuff.”

Cesar could be tough and demanding. You had to keep up
with his pace, his hours, his schedule, and the demands he
placed on himself. After the passage of California’s Agricultural
Labor Relations Act, he set out on a thousand-mile
march to inform farm workers of their newly won rights and
then spent frenetic months driving up and down the state
during the first union elections. I didn’t have time to read a
book for five months. He didn’t take a day off, and I didn’t
either. He loved the work and never tired of it.

One former UFW volunteer remarked, “Cesar had us work
harder than we ever thought we could work and do things we
never thought we could do. We had to keep up with Cesar.
Many of us couldn’t—and couldn’t keep working for no
pay—and that’s why a lot of us left.”

He could also be compassionate. If he saw you were down,
he’d pick you up, encourage and support you. In the most difficult
moments, when the odds seemed stacked against us and
the prospects appeared bleak, he’d tell corny jokes. They were
so bad we had to laugh.

Cesar was once in a San Jose hospital suffering intense
pain from a back condition aggravated by his years toiling with
el cortito
, the infamous short-handled hoe. Worried about security,
the hospital moved him into the maternity ward. After
the move, with Helen, his aides, and guys from his security
detail around, Cesar summoned the nurse. “What’s wrong,
Mr. Chavez?” she asked. “Is your back hurting you?”

“No nurse, I’m having labor problems,” he deadpanned.
Everyone broke out laughing.

Cesar knew that his celebrity status opened doors—and we
used it to stage media and fund-raising events and to book
him for in-studio appearances when I advanced his national
boycott tours. But he was always uncomfortable being singled
out for recognition. He knew that there were many Cesar
Chavezes, countless men and women who made genuine sacrifices
and accomplished great things but whose names are
largely unknown. He rarely accepted personal awards or let
people name things for him.

Today Cesar’s name adorns schools, streets, libraries, parks,
and other public places. Seven thousand people witnessed the
launching in 2012 of the U.S. Navy’s latest
Lewis and Clark
dry cargo ship, USNS
Cesar Chavez
, recognizing his
Navy service at the end of World War II. Later that year President
Obama visited La Paz, where Cesar had lived and
worked in his last quarter century and where he was buried in
1993. Before another crowd of seven thousand, the president
proclaimed a small part of the grounds as the Cesar E. Chavez
National Monument, the 398th unit of the National Park Service,
holding the same status as the Statue of Liberty and
Grand Canyon. We have stopped counting the thousands of
annual commemorations and observances that keep growing
more than twenty years after his passing. Eleven states now
celebrate his March 31 birthday as an official holiday.

Local recognitions are gratefully acknowledged; they are
also often expressions of ethnic and community pride. If Cesar
were here, he would likely scold people for wasting time on
such gestures.

The greatest monument to Cesar Chavez isn’t on a street
sign or a building. It’s the inspiration to work for change that
he instilled among his own people and in millions of other
Americans from all walks of life who have never worked on a
farm. Many people—including those who hadn’t even been
born when Cesar died—trace their social and political activism
to him.


Another key to Cesar’s success was his constant challenging of
the status quo and how people were used to doing things. He
saw his role in the movement as getting people to think outside
the box and to become agents of change.

That took curiosity and courage. Why couldn’t we boycott
or march or fast or bring cultural and religious traditions into
the union, even if other unions hadn’t done that?

“I had a dream that the only reason the employers were so
powerful was that we were so weak,” Cesar said. He sought a
paradigm shift in people’s thinking. If workers could organize
and get stronger, he reasoned, maybe the growers wouldn’t
appear as strong. So farm workers’ fate was in their own hands.

When you look closely at his strategies and tactics from a
historical perspective, four innovations stand out.

The first was nonviolence. As a devout Catholic and a student
of Eastern religion, including Zen Buddhism, Cesar was
convinced that human life is special, a gift from God, and no
one has the right to take it for any cause, no matter how just.
“If to build our union required the deliberate taking of life,
either the life of a grower or his child or the life of a farm
worker or his child, then I choose not to see the union built,”
he wrote in a Good Friday, 1969, letter to the head of the
California Grape and Tree Fruit League.

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
12.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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