Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (4 page)

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
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La Paz was also a personal refuge, a spiritual harbor for
him and movement staff, offering respite from tough
struggles in the fields and cities. The world outside La Paz could
pose serious personal dangers.

Leaving his house each morning, Cesar passed through a
high chain-link fence encircling his large yard, erected in
1971 after one of the two credible threats on his life that the
union received in that decade. I was with him both times.
That year, agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms notified the UFW that a few grape growers had put
up money to have him killed. Agents identified the hit man
but not the growers. Cesar went on the road, never sleeping
in the same place twice. The California Highway Patrol later
arrested the hit man near Salinas, only a short distance from
where Cesar had been the day before, for completing another
murder for hire.

After a few weeks on the road, Cesar told Helen, “I’m not
going to run. I’m not a coward. I have not done anything wrong
except fight for workers’ rights. I’m going back home. I don’t
care if they kill me. If that’s God’s will, let it be done.” He
returned to La Paz. That’s when the chain-link fence went
up—and Cesar’s security detail got beefed up.

The union’s executive board ordered Cesar to accept the
detail, much to his chagrin. This wasn’t the Secret Service; the
“guards” were farm workers and UFW volunteers. Cesar
forbade them from carrying weapons. He rebelled against the
lack of privacy and restrictions on his personal freedom,
sometimes ditching the guards if he could.

Cesar was given two magnificent German shepherds, which
he trained and named Boycott and Huelga (Strike). He took
them almost everywhere. They became his best friends. He
credited the dogs with his conversion to vegetarianism and
interest in animal rights. The dogs would travel with us in the
well of a late-1960s Ford Country Sedan station wagon, with
Cesar in the right front passenger seat. A “chase car,” one of
the union’s old four-door Plymouth Valiants, followed. I’d sit in
the back seat of the station wagon. In warm weather, the dogs
would sometimes breathe and drool down my shirt collar.

There were periods during strikes, organizing, or political
campaigns when our little troupe—Cesar, the guards, and
I—was almost constantly on the road, grueling weeks and months
of stressful days and constant travel when I saw Cesar more
than his wife did.

Sometimes he appeared to me as a solitary figure in the
midst of constant company, occasionally even lonely during
long periods of separation from family, a man almost resisting
his condition. Peter Matthiessen examined this character in
Sal Si Puedes
, as did the director Diego Luna forty-five years
later in his feature film
Cesar Chavez

The chain-link fence around Cesar’s house is still there, a
reminder of perilous times.


Cesar’s critics were right in one sense: he was not a traditional
labor leader. His legacy, good or bad, can’t be measured by
the size of his union or the number of members it had.

Cesar’s most abiding asset was a steely determination.
When setbacks occurred—and he probably had more defeats
than victories—Cesar just picked himself up off the ground,
dusted himself off, and went back to work. He said, “You only
lose when you stop fighting.”

His obituary was written many times. A bold headline with
his photo appeared on the front cover of the
New York Times
in 1974, asking, “Is Chavez Dead?” He was then
facing the formidable combination of growers and Teamsters,
whom he overcame with the passage of the farm labor law
and the Teamsters’ exit from farm labor in 1977.

After witnessing Cesar in Delano at the end of his last long
public fast, over the pesticide poisoning of farm workers, the
Los Angeles Times
columnist Frank Del Olmo wrote, “No
one who saw the 61-year-old union leader being carried into
the rally where 7,000 silent union members and supporters
waited, then watched him sit weakly through a mass,
grimacing in pain, can doubt that Chavez suffered during his
self-imposed ordeal. Argue with his tactics, but the deep sincerity
of his beliefs is obvious.  .  .  .  It’s hard to argue with someone
who is willing to risk death to make a point.”

In an era when so few people in public life seem willing to
risk their livelihoods, much less their lives, on principle, the life
of Cesar Chavez stands out with even greater moral purpose.
Cesar often said that if his movement didn’t survive his death
then his work would be in vain.

Under his successor as UFW president, Arturo Rodriguez,
the union continues to aggressively help farm workers organize,
negotiate new contracts, and win new legal protections. “The
UFW’s recent history shows remarkable success in the toughest
organizing job in America,” the former UNITE HERE
International president John Wilhelm said. Workers recently won
UFW contracts with the largest strawberry grower and winery
in America, one of California’s biggest vegetable growers,
three-fourths of the state’s fresh mushroom industry, one of the
largest dairies in the nation, and Washington State’s biggest winery.

The UFW also won recent California laws that let farm
workers use neutral mediators to hammer out union contracts
when employers refuse to bargain. Thousands of additional
farm workers are winning union protections.

Nearly five hundred million dollars have been paid out to
farm workers in health and pension benefits.

In 2005 the UFW convinced the Republican Arnold
Schwarzenegger, then the governor of California, to issue the first state
regulations in the nation that protect farm and other outdoor
workers from exposure to extreme heat. Although the heat
rules have saved many lives, state enforcement of these
standards and other good laws and regulations remains a
challenge. About two dozen California farm workers have perished
from hyperthermia since then.

With farm labor now overwhelmingly immigrant, Latino,
and undocumented, Arturo Rodriguez forged a historic
partnership with the nation’s growers to negotiate the agricultural
provisions of the bipartisan immigration reform bill that the
Senate passed in 2013. If passed by the Republican-led House,
it would let farm workers earn legal status by continuing to
work on farms, thus freeing these immigrant workers from
what makes them so vulnerable to abuse. The UFW remains
in the forefront of immigration reform.

Throughout the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, the Cesar
Chavez Foundation carries on his vision of a movement that
helps farm workers and other poor people in the workplace
and the community. Paul Chavez runs it.

The foundation has built or renovated and manages nearly
five thousand units of high-quality affordable housing for
thousands of low- and very-low-income families and seniors
in four states, most with extensive social services.

It operates Radio Campesina, a nine-station
Spanish-language educational radio network that reaches five hundred
thousand daily listeners in four states. Cesar started the first
station, KUFW, in rural Tulare County, California, in 1983.

Thousands of farm worker, Latino, and other
disadvantaged students receive after-school and summertime academic
tutoring and educational services from the foundation. It also
works through the National Chavez Center to tell the story of
Cesar and the movement, including at La Paz, where the
Chavez Foundation partners with the National Park Service
to administer the Chavez National Monument. Telling Cesar’s
story is now part of the park service’s mission of telling
America’s story.

•   •   •

The job of organizing a celebration of Cesar’s life fell to a core
of family members, UFW leaders and staff, friends, and
former colleagues who came to help.

The director-playwright Luis Valdez—his El Teatro
Campesino became famous during the 1965 Delano strike—helped
guide the program and its spirit. Staff scoured convention
centers and county fairs for the largest tent they could find: a
210-by-280-foot covering. Smaller tents housed guests and
two hundred journalists, some from Europe and Latin
America. TV news satellite trucks lined the parking lot. A
mammoth public address system brought sound out another three
hundred to four hundred yards.

The union worked with local police agencies and the CHP
on crowd and traffic control. There wasn’t a major incident.

Parking, sanitary, and first aid facilities; religious
ceremonies; and invitations to thousands across North America were
arranged. Farm workers from California, Arizona, the Pacific
Northwest, South Texas, and Florida chartered hundreds of
buses. Thousands of workers and supporters in hundreds of
communities who couldn’t come held their own services across
Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

Before the public services in Delano, Cesar was brought
home to La Paz for two days so family and friends could pay
their respects in private. Cesar had asked his brother Richard,
a journeyman carpenter before joining the UFW in the 1960s,
to build his casket from plain pine lumber, reflecting how
Cesar lived his life.

Mass was celebrated both evenings. People took turns all
night as honor guards, standing beside the casket. At 3 a.m.
one night there was a solitary feeling in the lobby of the
rambling wood-frame structure where Cesar lay in repose. Tall
candles burned at each end of the casket. Behind it was a large
portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
People came to sit or pray. Helen Chavez and other family
members were there all night.

Cesar’s nearby office-library was open. Papers and
handwritten notes on his desk were as he had left them. Someone
took a short-handled hoe from a bookcase and placed it on the
desk. A small metal plaque on the wooden handle read in
Spanish, “Si Se Puede!” (Yes, we can!).

I took a shift, standing a few feet from Cesar. There were
the same dark Indian features. His small hands were folded
in front, clutching a rosary. He was almost smiling. I half
expected him to sit up and talk. It was hard to believe that he
was gone. He wore a simple white guayabera that he kept for
special occasions. While Cesar lay in state, Irving Nichols, the
funeral director, asked if Helen had a fresh shirt for him.
She had Irving bring her the guayabera so she could wash it
at home.

Once word spread that Cesar’s funeral would occur in
Delano, people started showing up to help prepare the Forty
Acres, which hosts the UFW’s Central Valley operations and
the Paulo Agbayani Village, a retirement home that Cesar
built for displaced Filipino American farm workers who began
the Delano Grape Strike in 1965. The Forty Acres was also
where Robert Kennedy joined Cesar at the end of the latter’s
first fast, for nonviolence, in 1968, where grape growers came
to sign the historic union contracts in 1970, and where Cesar
fasted again in 1988.

Hundreds arrived with their hoes, rakes, shovels, string
trimmers, and home lawnmowers. Neighbors, including a local
unionized rose grower, brought tractors to disk and scrape the
barren soil. The city of Delano sent dump trucks, scrapers,
and water trucks. Local restaurants and businesses donated
food and drinks. Farm workers sewed five thousand union
flags. Unionized electricians wired the tents for lighting.
Unionized communication workers installed phone lines for
the press and the public.

Farm worker homes across the valley displayed black-eagle
UFW flags. Workers holding such flags lined overpasses at
small towns along Highway 99, to be seen by car caravans
traveling to the services.

People kept filing by the open casket in the big tent,
thousands upon thousands of them during an all-night vigil. As
buses arrived, the line to pay respects snaked down the main
aisle from the casket, which was in front of a makeshift altar.
Helen and other family members were up all night, greeting
and receiving condolences.

By late evening, the reporters and dignitaries had left. I
watched people file past in the hours after midnight. Farm
workers with small cameras asked permission to take photos as
they passed the casket. People left religious candles,
mementos, and flowers. Parents carried newborns and sleeping
toddlers so they could be a part of history. Farm workers, some
weeping with hats in hand, paused before the casket to pray
briefly and make the sign of the cross.

I remembered twenty years earlier, when a reporter
followed Cesar for a few days to union marches and rallies.
Workers and their family members came up to him for autographs
on leaflets, flags, and shirts. Fathers used little Instamatic
cameras to take pictures of Cesar with their children. Later,
during an interview, the reporter asked, “What accounts for all
the affection and respect farm workers show you in public?”

Cesar hesitated, smiled his easy smile, and replied, “The
feeling is mutual.”

The funeral procession the next morning went from
Memorial Park in Delano to the Forty Acres. Two flatbed trucks
ahead of the casket carried still photographers and TV news
crews. There were 120 pallbearers, eight at a time spending
three minutes carrying the heavy wood casket and bier over
three miles. Police estimated that thirty-five thousand people
marched. Rooftops were crowded. The elderly and the
disabled were on the streets. Farm workers held framed pictures
they had taken with Cesar as they marched. Students at an
elementary school along the route displayed a big hand-painted
sign: “
, Cesar.”

Out of the crowd of more than forty-five thousand, at least
twenty-five thousand could not fit into the tent. Those on the
outskirts couldn’t hear the loudspeakers well. No one was
upset. They improvised their own memorial services. It was
the largest, most genuine outpouring of affection that most
observers had witnessed. We were stunned by how far Cesar’s
influence reached. All this for a man who never made more
than six thousand dollars a year, never owned a home, and left
no money for his family.

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
8.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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