Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (5 page)

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
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Following a simple graveside service, about a hundred of
us buried him the next day in a rose garden at the foot of the
big hill at La Paz that he used to climb before dawn to watch
the sunrise as he practiced his meditation and yoga.


Someone once asked how a nice Jewish boy like me got hooked
up with the likes of Cesar Chavez. I loved history, I replied,
having majored in American history at UC Irvine. But after
meeting Cesar, getting to know him, and understanding what
he was trying to do, I decided it would be a lot more
meaningful to be part of history than just to read about it.

I earned two college degrees after starting with the UFW
in the late 1960s. But like thousands of others, I learned the
most important lessons in my life from working with Cesar and
his movement: lessons about commitment and self-sacrifice,
about being part of a cause that’s bigger than you are—about
what it means to be a man.

Those lessons are as relevant today as when Peter
Matthiessen wrote this book about Cesar Chavez, forty-five years ago.


Once upon a time there were duels; nowadays there are
clashes and pitched battles.

, “On Cowardice”

HE rich have money—and the poor have time.”
Those were the words of Cesar Chavez in 1991, two years
before his death. Is it sheer fancy to suggest that this
sentence alone summarizes the dominant concerns of his life?
Chavez’s life was defined by patience. Patience was his
weapon against the grape owners and the Teamsters, against
the abuse of the downcast. He had plenty of patience, much
more than a normal person, and it was proven in his nonviolent
marches, fasts, and petitions. “We don’t have to win this
year or next year or even the year after that,” he told his followers.
“We’ll just keep plugging away, day after day.  .  .  .  We
will never give up. We have nothing else to do with our lives
except to continue in this nonviolent fight.”

Of course, there is such a thing as too much patience.
How long will it take for Chavez’s message to penetrate the
American psyche? He’s been dead for almost a decade. His
name and face adorn schools and public parks. He pops up
in advertisements for Macintosh computers, along with John
Lennon and the Dalai Lama—“Think Different”! But these
ghostlike appearances are empty of all ideological significance:
it’s a tame Chavez, not the quixotic knight he was; a
brand name, as disposable as any celebrity in Hollywood.

My generation is too young to have witnessed Chavez’s
odyssey from obscurity to legend. My appreciation for his
courage and forbearance came indirectly. I learned about
him from books and documentaries. Every reference to him
was cloaked in an aura of sanctity. But as with most saints, it
was hard to figure out exactly what he had done on the road
to beatitude. No doubt Chavez was the most important Hispanic
American political figure of the twentieth century. But
for someone like me, born at the apex of his career, outside
the United States, it was almost impossible to lift him from
the junk box where icons are stored away and reinsert him
into history. Somehow Chavez the man had become Chavez
the statue: pigeons sat motionless on his nose and hands, his
beautiful bronze skin corroded by the passing of time.

How can he be rescued from this eclipse? Do his words
still have an echo? Have we lost the capacity to appreciate
not just a fighter but also a true duelist, a crusader capable
of reevaluating our preconceptions of the world? What is
meaningful about him today? Can his message still speak to
us? Americans are obsessed with the radicalism of the 1960s,
as epitomized by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. This
obsession is concurrent with a Latin boom, a sudden embrace
of Latino music and culture, north of the Rio Grande.
And yet most Americans couldn’t care less about
Chavez—especially Latinos. The new Hispanic pride is a profoundly
middle-class product. It replaces radical politics with
consumerism, the gun with the Gap, hunger strikes with Taco
Bell. Chavez’s face on a billboard goes down easier than any
of his injunctions about courage, resilience, commitment.
Chavez is not alone: other Latino activists have been shelved,
as well, from Bernardo Vega and Jesús Colón to Dolores
Huerta, Rudolfo “Corky” González, and Reies López Tijerina.
Even Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, the black historian whose
Puerto Rican identity was crucial to his work and his life,
remains a forgotten oddity.

But none of these figures is more emblematic than
Chavez. Rumors of a full-length biography surface and then
disappear. Very few of his countless speeches have been
transcribed, and his occasional writings remain scattered,
lost in remote, often inaccessible corners of libraries. Why
has no one published a
Portable Cesar Chavez?
Are his politics
still too dangerous? Or are they simply irrelevant?


Chavez came from a humble background. He was born in
Yuma, Arizona, in 1927, and his family lived on a 160-acre
farm not far from town. His grandfather was from Hacienda
del Carmen, in Chihuahua, Mexico. He had a slave-like life
under authoritarian landowners close to dictator Porfirio
Diaz. He was rebellious. The fate of those workers unwilling
to cooperate was the draft. But Papa Chayo ran away and
crossed the border in El Paso, Texas, eventually moving to
the North Gila Valley along the Colorado River. Chavez
never quite spelled out his relationship with Mexico, but its
clear that it wasn’t colored by nostalgia. Arizona was his
home. His father was a businessman. The second of five
children and his dad’s right hand, Chavez made himself useful
with the crops, chopped wood, and helped with the
animals. As he recounted his childhood in the early 1970s,
it was a life under pressure from heavy taxes and hard
work. Parents and siblings were close. But things turned for
the worse when Chavez’s father lost his holdings during the

Like many other families, the Chavezes eventually moved
to California in search of better opportunities, only to find
jobs picking cotton, grapes, and carrots, following the sun
and the season from one migrant camp to another. Chavez
never finished high school. Segregation was a fixture in the
landscape. “We went this one time to a diner,” he once recalled.
“There was a sign on the door ‘White Trade Only’
but we went anyway. We had heard that they had these big
hamburgers, and we wanted one. There was a blond, blue-eyed
girl behind the counter, a beauty. She asked what we
wanted—real tough you know?—and when we ordered a
hamburger, she said, ‘We don’t sell to Mexicans,’ and she
laughed when she said it. She enjoyed doing that, laughing
at us. We went out, but I was real mad. Enraged. It had to
do with my manhood.”

The education he got was unstable because of the itinerant
life that field labor carried with it. He once said he attended
some sixty-five elementary schools, some “for a day, a
week, or a few months.” At the age of nineteen, he joined
the Agricultural Workers’ Union. The Union existed in name
only—the organizing drive to create it was unsuccessful—but
the struggle gave him a taste of the challenges ahead.
After a couple of years in the Navy during World War II,
Chavez returned to California, where he married Helen,
whom he met in Delano—her parents had come from Mexico
and one of them had fought in the revolution of 1910—and
with whom he eventually had eight children. He
returned to the migrant’s life but also found the time to read
about historical figures. It was around 1952 that he met and
was inspired by the work of organizer Fred Ross, a leader of
the Community Services Organization, whom he met in
1952 and who was supported by the Chicago-based Saul
Alinsky. Ross and Alinsky channeled important ideas and
concepts to Chavez, from which he developed his own philosophy
of struggle. Many had already tried to organize the
Mexican migrant workers to improve their miserable working
conditions. But it took Chavez’s charisma—
su simpatía
move mountains. By the time he was thirty-three, he was
organizing families in the grape fields and persuading growers
to increase wages. His strategy was simple: straight talk
and honesty. If he was to become a spokesman for the workers,
he would also be a model for them. And role models require
commitment and sacrifice.

The National Farm Workers Union was created in 1962,
with Chavez as its president. It was the year of the Cuban
Missile Crisis, and U.S.—Latin American relations were in
peril. The organization grew quickly and changed its name a
few times in the 1960s before christening itself the United
Farm Workers. Chavez solidified the organization’s Chicano
base, opened up membership to the Filipino community,
and forged links with other like-minded groups, most notably
the small community of black farm workers. By the
midsixties, he had become a beloved folk hero to the poor
and to the boisterous student movement, and public enemy
number one to conservative California businessmen and
politicians—especially Governor Ronald Reagan. Unlike many
other leaders of the Civil Rights era, Chavez combined activism
with environmentalism—a combination that would
make him a darling of the contemporary environmentalist
movement, if only they cared. His struggle to improve labor
conditions was also a fight against pesticides.

It has often been said that Chavez wasn’t a rhetorician:
unlike Martin Luther King Jr. or Julian Bond, Chavez had
little talent for highbrow oratory. Still, he had an astonishing
ability to redefine audiences, to make them act in a different
way. He had an inspired message, a clear vision of his place
in history, faithful listeners to whom he gave a sense of
shared history. With the listeners he embarked on a crusade,
idealistic yet practical, that attempted to redefine labor relations
in America. He lived life spontaneously, and he responded
to every occasion with speeches that were neither
preconceived nor sophisticated. Yet he was eloquent, precisely
because his improvisational, pragmatic mind always
found what was needed. “[You] are looking for a miracle, a
leader who will do everything for us,” he once said. “It doesn’t
happen. People have to do the work.” Elsewhere, he said:
“Nothing changes until the individual changes.” And indeed,
Chavez was an astonishing teacher, a true role model of the
kind that comes along only once in a generation.

Chavez’s strategic approach to leadership was symbolized
by his confrontation with the Teamsters. The Teamsters and
the UFW had forged an uneasy peace: in 1970, they signed
a pact that gave Chavez jurisdiction over the fields, while the
teamsters had control over the packing sheds. But in 1973,
when Chavez was at the height of his powers, the liaison
collapsed: the teamsters signed a contract with growers for
lower wages in the field. It was a major blow to the Chicano
leader; his support fell precipitously, from some fifty thousand
followers to fewer than fifteen thousand. Suddenly,
Chavez’s simple, honest speeches seemed empty. There
was talk of financial mismanagement; conventional wisdom
held that the UFW was finished. Chavez himself was losing
hope—he referred to those years as “the worst of our times.”
But he was nothing if not determined. The smaller UFW
continued to march, and the grape boycott began to make
an impact. Within a few years, Jerry Brown was the progressive
governor of California, and Chavez was again a hero.


Chavez’s patient heroism struck a chord in America, a nation
that loves underdogs. He once received a telegram from the
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.: “As brothers in the fight
for equality,” it read in part, “I extend the hands of
fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and
your members.  .  .  .  We are together with you in spirit and in
determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be
realized.” But Chavez’s heroism did not win him much of a
following in Mexico, where militancy of any sort makes the
government nervous. Of course, Mexicans love revolutionaries,
and there were those among the left-wing intelligentsia
who idolized Chavez. They saw him as a guerrilla
leader on the order of Emiliano Zapata, a man of the people,
a prophet—North America’s Mahatma Gandhi. Yet most
Mexicans—especially those in the middle and upper
classes—never thought much about Chavez; the UFW was
simply irrelevant, a footnote in the history books. No
attempt was made to reclaim him as a Mexican. Chavez was a
leader of the Chicano movement of the 1960s, the first
sustained bout of Hispanic activism in American history, but
Mexicans have never really identified with Chicanos. Chicanos
are traitors: they are the Mexicans who left and never
looked back, the ones who put themselves, their ambitions,
before everyone else. This attitude toward Chicanos is hypocritical—Mexico’s
economy depends heavily on its emigrants.
Where would the country be without that endless
flow of precious U.S. dollars?

Why didn’t we embrace him? It wasn’t just apathy: the
rise of Chavez on the world stage coincided with the rise of
the Mexican counterculture—and the government’s fumbling
yet brutal attempts to subdue it. In 1968 thousands of
students were massacred in Tlatelolco Square. The American
civil rights movements, black
brown, received an icy
reception from official Mexico. As for the Mexican people,
our attention was focused locally, on the events that were
tearing our own country apart.

It was only in my early twenties, after I came to the
United States, that I began to understand Chavez’s urge to
change the world. In streets and public schools along the
Southwest, his name was ubiquitous: a legend, a myth. I
wanted to get to know him, to recognize the scope and nature
of his revolution. I read everything about him I could
find. Sometimes, I saw myself in the pages, and sometimes I
found myself overwhelmed by a sense of detachment. An
outsider looking in, a north-bound Spanish-speaking Caucasian:
Could I see myself reflected in Chavez’s eyes? Or
was he an icon for another Mexico, another me? Why hadn’t
I learned more about him in school?

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
9.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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