Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (30 page)

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
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On the seventeenth day, Chavez asked Richard to
construct the cheap and simple cross that was later destroyed
by vandals. The cross was the ultimate affront to at least
two volunteers. One dismissed the entire fast as a “cheap
publicity stunt”; the other, who had once been a priest,
accused Chavez of having a messiah complex. Both soon
quit the United Farm Workers for good. The messiah
charge, which has been made before and since, does not
ring true to my own experience of Chavez. His account of
the taco man from Merced, to cite just one example, is not
a parable constructed by a man who takes himself too
seriously; perhaps what the ex-priest was threatened by was
not an aspirant messiah but a truly religious man.

“Anyway, the kids began to feel the pressure, and my
father and mother. My dad began to lose his sleep—he’s
fantastic, he’ll never talk about himself—but he’s over
eighty, you know, so I got a little worried. He has fasted a
couple of times himself. Once he had dysentery and he
couldn’t clear it up, and he was dying. And one of those
hobos on his way through—this was in the Depression, and
they were white Okies, mostly—learned about my father
and said he could take care of it. He was an old guy with a
beard, he had books in his bindle, you know, and my sister
translated for him into Spanish, and he said, ‘I’ll either save
you or I’ll kill you, and I’ll be back in three days, so you
think it over.’ Well, my dad had been to a specialist and
everything, and nobody could help him, but he said, ‘Hell,
how can I stop eating, I can’t stop eating for even half a
day!’ And the hoob said, ‘No, you can go for twenty days,
maybe thirty days.’ Anyway, when the hobo came back, my
dad said he would try it. So he stopped eating, and in three
days he got rid of the dysentery, there was nothing to
feed it. He went on for twenty days. I said to him, ‘Dad,
you fasted for twenty days,’ and he said, ‘Yes, but that was
different.’

“I had no set date in mind, but a combination of things
made me end it on March eleventh. I could have gone a few
days more. I broke the fast on a Sunday, it must have been
about one or two o’clock. I ate a small piece of bread, but
actually, I kept on fasting for the next four days, because
you can’t eat right away. So really I felt weaker
after
the
fast was over.”

The fast continued four days longer than Gandhi’s
famous hunger strike in 1924 (or so I’ve read; Chavez
would be the last to make this claim). As it wore on through
February and into March, many of the farm workers
became apprehensive, and a number of strikers came to
Manuel and swore that they would never be violent again
if he could just persuade Cesar to quit; like the emissary
from Merced with his bag of tacos, they were terrified that
the leader of
la causa
would be harmed.

During the fast Chavez received a wire from Senator
Robert Kennedy (
I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT I FULLY AND
UNSWERVINGLY SUPPORT THE PRINCIPLES WHICH LED YOU TO
UNDERTAKE YOUR FAST  .  .  .  YOUR WORK AND YOUR BELIEF HAVE
ALWAYS BEEN BASED SOLELY UPON PRINCIPLES OF
NONVIOLENCE  .  .  .  YOU HAVE MY BEST WISHES AND MY DEEPEST
CONCERN IN THESE DIFFICULT HOURS
) and the senator, with
a phalanx of the press, appeared in person on the epochal
Sunday when the fast ended.

In early 1960, while in the CSO, Chavez had met Robert
Kennedy in Los Angeles, in a brief early-morning meeting
that concerned a voter-registration drive for John
Kennedy’s presidential campaign; when he saw him next, he
was Senator Kennedy, attending the hearings of the Senate
Subcommittee on Migratory Labor in 1966. Apparently
Kennedy had seen no point in going to Delano, but was
finally persuaded by an aide that endorsement of Chavez
and the minority-group Mexican-American cause could not
hurt him politically and might be a very good investment;
the investment was to win him the California primary two
years later. And Chavez took Kennedy’s commitment at
face value. “Even then, I had an idea he was going to be a
candidate for the Presidency, and I was concerned for him
because he endorsed us so straightforwardly, without
straddling the line. This was a time when everybody was
against us; the only people for us were ourselves. I was
sitting next to Dolores Huerta, and we both had the same
thought—that he didn’t have to go that far. Instead of that
awful feeling against politicians who don’t commit
themselves, we felt protective. He said we had the right to form
a union and that he endorsed our right, and not only
endorsed us but joined us. I was amazed at how quickly he
grasped the whole picture. Then the hearings started and
they began to call the witnesses, and he immediately asked
very pointed questions of the growers; he had a way of
disintegrating their arguments by picking at the very
simple questions. He had to leave just before the hearings
ended, but he told the press that the workers were
eventually going to be organized, that the sooner the
employers recognized this, the sooner it was going to be
over. And when reporters asked him if we weren’t
Communists, he said, ‘No, they are not Communists, they’re
struggling for their rights.’ So he really helped us, and
things began to change.”

On March 11, 1968, while in Los Angeles, Kennedy was
notified that the fast was ending; he chartered a plane and
flew to Delano with the United Auto Workers’ Paul
Schrade. At first, according to Chavez’s aides, Kennedy
seemed rather cold. “He felt kind of uneasy,” Chavez told
me, “and one of our people heard him ask Paul Schrade or
somebody, ‘What do you say to a guy who’s on a fast?’ He
was only in the room with me about thirty seconds. He
looked at me”—Chavez grinned mischievously—“and he
says, ‘How are you, Cé-zar?’ I said, ‘Very well, thank you.
And I thank you for coming.’ He said, ‘It’s my pleasure,’ or
something. So then we kind of changed the subject.”
Chavez laughed. “I was very weak, and I did not know
what to say either; I think I introduced him to Paul Schrade.

“The TV people were there, and one poor cameraman
got blocked out, the monitors wouldn’t let him by. I saw
he was frantic, and I was too weak to shout, but finally I
signaled Leroy Chatfield, and Leroy got him in. The poor
guy was really pale. And he said, ‘Senator, this is probably
the most ridiculous request I ever made in my life, but
would you mind giving him a piece of bread,’ and the
senator gave it to me, and the camera rolled, and the man
said, ‘Thank you very, very much.’”

Chavez, who used to be stocky, had dropped from one
hundred and seventy-five pounds to one hundred and forty
during the fast; bundled up in a dark-checked hooded
parka against the March cold, he was half carried to the
Mass of Thanksgiving held in a Delano park where an altar
had been set up on the flatbed of a truck.

The mass began with a prayer in Hebrew: the sermon
was Protestant, and Catholic ritual preceded the breaking
of the poor man’s bread,
semita
. After Chavez and Kennedy
had shared bread, priests passed through the thousands of
witnesses, distributing the loaves. Because Chavez was too
weak—he could scarcely keep his head erect during the
ceremony—others read his speech for him, both in English
and Spanish. In it, he told the gathering that his body was
too weak and his heart too full for him to speak. He thanked
everyone for being there, then told them that the strict
water fast had been broken with liquids on the
twenty-first day. He touched on the purpose of the fast, and
concluded as follows: “When we are really honest with
ourselves, we must admit that our lives are all that really belong
to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines what
kind of men we are. It is my deepest belief that only by
giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the
truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to
sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle
for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us
be men.”

Chavez’s concept of the meaning of life being based in
service to mankind is like that of Tolstoi and Hesse; his
love is philosophical, not just religious. “How many people
do you know,” Dolores Ruerta inquired one day, “who
really
love people, good and bad, enough to lay down their
lives for them?” She meant that last part literally.

Robert Kennedy, who recognized Chavez’s uncommon
qualities, declared that he was present out of respect “for
one of the heroic figures of our time—Cesar Chavez!” After
taking communion with Chavez, he began his speech in a
Spanish so awful that he stopped with good grace to laugh
at himself. “Am I murdering the language?” he inquired,
and was wildly cheered. “
Hool
-ga!” he cried, in an effort
to pronounce the strike slogan. “
Hool
-ga!” During the
offertory, on behalf of his auto workers, Paul Schrade
presented the Union with $50,000 for the construction of the
new headquarters at the Forty Acres. After a feast of
thanksgiving contributed by numerous families and
committees, the meeting concluded with a fiery speech by
Reies Lopez Tijerina, the leader of New Mexico’s
Mexican-Americans, who was later mentioned as a possible
Vice-Presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom party.
Tijerina is an old-style Latin demagogue, full of shout and
menace, but he failed to excite the
campesinos
of Delano.
“The trouble is,” one staff member says, “that you get
spoiled working for Cesar. When I see a person ranting
and raving, I don’t feel there’s much substance there. It
turns me off.”

•   •   •

The mass was attended by from four to ten thousand
people, depending on the source of the estimate: about
eight thousand is probably right. “I told the senator that
we could do most everything in Delano except control
crowds, and he said that that didn’t matter so long as the
crowds were there. But he had a heck of a time getting
from where we were sitting to the car. The crowd was
pushing and surging, and when he got there, he didn’t get
in; the way the people were reacting, he wanted to stand
there and shake their hands and talk to them. Everybody
was afraid of so many people pushing like that, and when
Jim Drake got him inside, the people were saying through
the windows, ‘Aren’t you going to run?’ ‘Why don’t you
run?’ ‘Please run!’ Then Jim got the car moving, and
Kennedy turned to the people in the car and said, ‘Maybe I
will. Yes, I think I will.’ So when he announced his
candidacy a week later, it was no surprise to us. Everybody
had suggested that I leave Delano for a little while after
the fast, to rest, so Helen and I were on the coast near the
Santa Ynez Mission. Helen got a paper and brought it
back to the farm where we were staying, and I was excited,
but I knew he was going to do it all along.

“On March 19, when Paul Schrade called to ask if I
would endorse him and be a delegate, I knew it would not
be honorable to ask for something in return. With most
politicians, this would have been all right, but not with
this man, who had already helped us so much. After a
three-hour discussion, our members voted unanimously
that I should be a delegate, and we immediately began a
voter-registration drive.

“We worked right up to the last minute, we had a
beautiful time, and the drive was a tremendous success.
Some precincts went out one hundred percent for
Kennedy! But I was very tired, and I felt embarrassed when
my name was called at the rally at the Ambassador, and so
I left early, before the senator came downstairs. The last
time I ever talked to him was when he gave me that piece
of bread.”

 

In the voter-registration drive for Kennedy, Chavez’s
CSO experience, combined with his great gifts as an
organizer, were very effective; the Mexican-American vote
in June was virtually unanimous, and few people doubt
that it was Chavez who won for Kennedy the primary that
Kennedy had to win in order to be nominated. Possibly the
task was made more urgent by the murder of Martin Luther
King, soon after the voter-registration drive began; there
was a growing fear among the poor that all their champions
were to be assassinated. Although King and Chavez had
never met, only corresponded, the loss of King was personal
for Chavez. “That was one time I came very close to losing
my cool. I was at a rally in Sacramento, and I really resented
the press, you know, resented their questions.” Still, he had
not lost hope. In a telegram to Mrs. King he said: “
DESPITE
THE TRAGIC VIOLENCE THAT TOOK YOUR HUSBAND, THERE IS
MUCH THAT IS GOOD ABOUT OUR NATION. IT WAS TO THAT
GOODNESS THAT YOUR HUSBAND APPEALED  .  .  .
” In his
opinon,
King’s kind of nonviolence, like Gandhi’s, was the
practicing of what Christ preached, but generated violence on the
other side because it wasn’t passive. Since Chavez’s
nonviolence is also of this kind, he has had to live with the
possibility of his own assassination; fear of death was one of the
problems that he dealt with in the fast.

“No one accepts death, I think,” he has said, “but what
is the alternative? If you lock yourself in or give up, it’s a
living death; that’s no alternative. Death is not enough to
stop you. You’re really too busy to think of it. Unimportant,
day-to-day things get your attention, which is just as well.”

Between the King and Kennedy assassinations, the
following document was widely circulated in the Valley:

BAKERSFIELD, CALIFORNIA

THE NEW CATHOLIC CHURCH “APOSTLES CREED”

I believe in CESAR CHAVEZ, creator of all the
TROUBBBBLE, and HELL, and the “UNITED FARMERS
ORGANIZATION COMMITTEE.” I believe in SAINT MARK DAY
(the 2 bit politician priest of Delano) that “FOXXES” THE
POOR FARMERS THE “CATHOLIC WAY”  .  .  .  I believe
[Chavez] is the NEW POPE HOLY  .  .  .  I believe that he is
SAINT CESAR CHAVEZ  .  .  .  I believe in WALTER
REUTHER, HIS MENTOR. I believe in the $$$$$50,000 FIFTY
GRAND CHECK donated by Walter Reuther to Chavez so
Saint Cesar could HARRASS THE POOR FARMERS AND
NON UNION WORKERS IN POOR CALIFORNIA  .  .  .  I
believe HE will be SHOT “a la KENNEDY STYLE” (oh
happy day)   .  .  .
I believe LBJ-HHH-and MACNAMARA, did all their best
to give all us poor Americans a GOOD FOXXING with
VIETNAM, NORTH KOREA, LA FRANCE, THE ARABS,
THE JEWS, THE CUBANS, THE NEEGAHS AND THE
CIVIL RIGHTERS. I believe that ALL THE CATHOLIC
BISHOPS in HEAH-U.S.A. are for CESAR CHAVEZ, CIVIL
RIGHTERS, CARD BURNERS, DRAFT DODGERS,
RAPERS, THIEVES, MURDERERS AND THE NIGGERS.
I believe BISHOP TIMOTHY MANNING OF FRESNO
will “RENOUNCE” HIS IRISH BLOOD AND
ANCESTORSHIP and will claim to be (like Chavez) a real COOL
MEXICAN and half NEGRO. (He is a NIGGERS LOVER).
.  .  .  I believe GEORGE C. WALLACE WILL SCARE THE
SHEETS OUT OF ALL THE NEEGAHS (neeegers to you)
by being ELECTED PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.A. I believe
FATHER GROPPIE THE S.O.B. OF MILWAUKEE WILL
REST IN HELL NEXT TO A BELOVED FRIEND OF HIS,
(REV.) M.L.K. (Beautiful News.)
I believe that MARTIN LUCIFER KING is also resting
in  .  .  .  HE  .  .  .  (how do you spell it?) we got it; in he/// hea///
ven; their NEW BLACKIE SAINT (whose dead
MARTYRDOM) Oh yeah? the Catholic Church BLAMES ON US
POOR CATHOLICS  .  .  .  I believe that VERY SOON WE
(You and I) WILL ATTEND A JOYFUL FUNERAL FOR
OUR HONORABLE GUEST??????? AND NEW SAINT.
(Can you name him?) GLORY BE, GLORY BE, AMEN,
AMEN, amen, ALELUYA, ALELUYA; Pax bobis. PAXXX
BOBIS? Pax bobis my eye. PAXXXXXX FOXXXIS US ALL.
BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
5.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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