Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (6 page)

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
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I was glad to find that the story of Chavez and La Causa,
as his movement became known, had been chronicled dozens
of times, by any number of interpreters. Many of these
books felt disjoined, though, even apathetic. Several authors
scrutinized the Chicano leader with academic tools that
turned him into an artifact. Then there was John Gregory
Dunne’s
Delano: Story of the California Grape Strike,
a
highly informed if somewhat detached portrait; Jacques E.
Levy’s pastiche of memories and anecdotes,
Cesar Chavez:
Autobiography of La Causa;
and Richard B. Taylor’s mesmerizing
Chavez and the Farm Workers.
But the book that
brought Chavez home to me, the one that allowed me to
share his dreams, was Peter Matthiessen’s
Sal Si Puedes
—an
honest, lucid picture of the internal and external upheaval
that marked the Chicano leader in his most influential years.
In later accounts of La Causa, Matthiessen’s journalistic
portrait is held in high esteem: panoramic yet finely detailed,
knowing and elegant. Nat Hentoff said the book offered a
view of a battlefield where the fight is “not only for the
agricultural workers but for the redemption of [the whole]
country.”

Lately I reread
Sal Si Puedes
and felt a sense of
exhilaration. The book is a kind of aleph that allows the Chicano
movement to come alive again, and it gives Chavez’s message
a much-needed urgency. Somewhere in its early pages
Matthiessen admits that he knew he would be impressed by
Chavez, but he didn’t foresee how startling their encounter
would prove to be. After a few weeks in his company,
Matthiessen realized the organizer was also organizing him.
The author has the same feelings the reader does: first
admiration, then awe.

It was the summer of 1968 when Matthiessen first visited
Chavez. They were the same age: forty-one. Matthiessen
lived in New York City, and he was introduced to Chavez by
a common friend, Ann Israel, who had been helping to organize
East Coast farm workers. At one point, Israel asked
Matthiessen to copyedit an advertisement about pesticides:
not only what they did to crops, but also what they did to the
people who worked in the fields. The ad was for the
New
York Times,
and Israel wanted to make sure the English was
perfect; she was very pleased with Matthiessen when she
saw his draft. They struck up a friendship, and one day, she
mentioned Cesar Chavez. Matthiessen said he was a great
admirer, so Israel took him to Delano, California, where
Matthiessen met the Chicano leader. Chavez’s grace and intelligence
were seductive. It turned out that both men had
been in the army around the same time. They shared many
passions, including boxing; they both favored Sugar Ray
Leonard. Matthiessen would later write a description of
Chavez that has become a landmark:

The man who has threatened California has an Indian’s bow
nose and lank black hair, with sad eyes and an open smile that
is shy and friendly; at moments he is beautiful, like a dark seraph.
He is five feet six inches tall, and since his twenty-five-day
fast the previous winter, has weighed no more than one
hundred and fifty pounds. Yet the word “slight” does not
properly describe him. There is an effect of being centered in
himself so that no energy is wasted, an effect of density; at the
same time, he walks as lightly as a fox. One feels immediately
that this man does not stumble, and that to get where he is
going he will walk all day.

Upon his return to New York, Matthiessen got in touch
with William Shawn, the editor at the
New Yorker,
and suggested
a profile on Chavez. Shawn had sponsored Matthiessen’s
earlier trips to South America and Alaska; he was
receptive to the idea. Matthiessen returned to California,
this time to Sal Si Puedes, the San Jose barrio where Chavez
lived and where his career as a union organizer took off. The
result was a two-part article, published on June 21 and 28,
1969. It was one of the first pieces on social justice ever to
appear in the
New Yorker
and one of the first articles in a
national magazine about Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers’
movement. When Matthiessen gave his
New Yorker
fee
to the UFW, Chavez was deeply grateful.

 

I felt inspired when I first read Matthiessen. For some years
I had been infatuated with the California counterculture of
the 1960s—the hippie movement of the Haight Ashbury,
Carlos Castaneda’s fascination with
peyote
and his quest for
Don Juan Matos, the music of the Beach Boys. Through
Sal
Si Puedes
I discovered the seething political underground,
the world in which Cesar Chavez came into his own. It was a
revelation to me: California was not all about alternative
states of mind but, more emphatically, about courageous political
alternatives and attempts to redefine the social texture,
about racial and class struggle. From there, I was able
to trace other radical figures in the Chicano community,
such as Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, who appears as a three-hundred-pound
Samoan in Hunter S. Thompson’s
Fear and Loathing
in Las Vegas.
Of course, there is a huge gap between
Chavez and Zeta. It may even be sacrilegious to invoke the
two in unison. Physically and mentally unstable, Zeta was a
lawyer and activist, the author of
The Autobiography of a
Brown Buffalo
and
The Revolt of the Cockroach People,
a
brilliant outlaw, a
forajido
never quite ready to put his cards
on the table. He might have done more harm than good to
the Chicano movement. Chavez, whom he paid a personal
visit, was a full-fledged revolutionary, the true fountainhead
of the Chicano movement.

For Cesar Chavez, patience and sacrifice are siblings. He
pairs them in a way that only American prophets can, mixing
utopian vision with an enviable sense of practicality. The essayist
Richard Rodriguez once described Chavez as “wielding
a spiritual authority.” It is that spirituality—his use of
prayer in marches, the realization that the power of his followers’
faith is stronger than anything else—that is so inspiring.
When his betrayal by the Teamsters brought him low,
Catholics around the country rallied for Chavez; church leaders
supported him. What did they see in Chavez? A Christ
figure, perhaps; a modest man of overpowering charisma; a
man unafraid to speak the truth. In 1974 a reporter for the
Christian Century
wrote that she was “puzzled at the power
of such an uncompromising person to command so much
loyalty from so many.” The entire quest for social justice and
commitment, for patience and honesty, cannot but be seen
in these terms. Chavez came from a devout Catholic background,
and he often invoked Christ in his speeches. “I can’t
ask people to sacrifice if I don’t sacrifice myself,” he said.
Or: “Fighting for social justice is one of the profoundest
ways in which man can say yes to man’s dignity, and that
really means sacrifice. There is no way on this earth in which
you can say yes to man’s dignity and know that you’re going
to be spared some sacrifice.”

That Chavez allowed a perfect stranger like Peter Matthiessen
to enter his life for a period of almost three years—making
room at his own dinner table, bringing him along to
union meetings, introducing him to friends—is proof of his
generosity. But there was also self-interest: Chavez saw an
opportunity to compound his notoriety and consolidate his
power. Matthiessen did not disappoint: he portrays Chavez
critically but responsibly; the leader is seen as enterprising,
the owner of an unadulterated vitality, capable of minor
lapses but overall a prophet ahead of his time.

More than thirty years later,
Sal Si Puedes
is less reportage
than living history; a whole era comes alive in its pages:
Black Power, backlash, the antiwar movement, the browning
of the labor movement, the greening of the browns. Taken
with Joan Didion’s
The White Album,
it’s an indispensable
guide to the sixties, when America was changed forever. The
eighties were difficult for Chavez, who had grown weary and
depressed. The media alternately ignored him and attacked
him. He still lived in the Gila River Valley. The grape strike
and the confrontation with the teamsters were buried deep
in the past. People in general had grown impatient with
activism. Chavez’s home was with the migrant workers, to
whom he had devoted his life, but the heyday of the labor
movement was over, overwhelmed by the conservative avalanche
that brought Reagan and Bush to power. Scholars
such as John C. Hammerback and Richard J. Jensen define
that last period as “the unfinished last boycott.” The cultural
climate was different. Chavez ceased to be a leader speaking
to his constituency and assumed the role of lecturer. In
speeches given in the college circuit, he emphasized the
power of teaching and amplified his message to encompass
not only Chicanos in the Southwest but people from all
racial backgrounds, anywhere in the country, as well. In doing
so, though, he watered down the message. “How could
we progress as a people,” he claimed in a 1984 speech,
“even if we lived in the cities, while farm workers—men and
women of color—were condemned to a life without pride?”

From
Chicanos
to
men and women of color
.  .  .  .  The
politics of language was actually more treacherous. A growing
Latino middle class—what historian Rudolfo Acuña, in his
book
Occupied America,
defined as “the brokers”—embraced
ambivalence as its worldview. Its language got closer
to Spanglish, and it began to see itself as the owner of a hyphenated
identity, a life in between. The shift was perceived
as a ticket toward assimilation. This middle class, eager to
cross over, found itself courted by savvy politicians and by a
merchandise-oriented society. Clearly the mainstream was
ready to open its arms only if Chicanos were ready to define
themselves elastically enough to become “Hispanics,” the
rubric that predeceased “Latinos,” large enough to also
encompass those hailing from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Ecuador, El
Salvador  .  .  .

But as time went by this polycephalous minority ceased to
be acquainted with Cesar Chavez. It no longer recognized
the leader’s struggles as its own. One comes to America
dreaming of a better world, it was announced loud and clear,
and in the process, one learns to consume and be consumed.
I once heard a friend of Chavez say that Cesar had had “the
fortunate misfortune” to have avoided martyrdom. Unlike
Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, he had outlived himself,
outlived his message. His exuberance and self-confidence
were replaced by a strange silence. Rumors from within the
UFW described him as sectarian. Those that had not stayed
and fought were received with indifference; Matthiessen felt
some of that reticence when he told Chavez that he was
thinking of writing a sequel to
Sal Si Puedes.
Chavez’s response
was ambiguous, even reluctant. The effort went nowhere.
Perhaps we should feel fortunate that it didn’t, for
the best of Chavez had already been recorded.

 

Survival, sacrifice.  .  .  .  When Chavez died in 1993, thousands
gathered at his funeral. It was a clear sign of how beloved
he was, how significant his life had been. President Bill Clinton
spoke of him as “an authentic hero to millions of people
throughout the world,” and described him as “an inspiring
fighter.” And Jerry Brown called him a visionary who
sought “a more cooperative society.” In the media Chavez
was portrayed as “a national metaphor for justice, humanity,
equality, and freedom.” Matthiessen himself wrote an obituary
for the
New Yorker.
“A man so unswayed by money,” he
wrote, “a man who (despite many death threats) refused to
let his bodyguards go armed, and who offered his entire life
to the service of others, [is] not to be judged by the same
standards of some self-serving labor leader or politician.  .  .  .  Anger
was a part of Chavez, for so was a transparent love for
humankind.”

It is left to us, though, his successors, those that never
had the privilege to meet him, especially the millions of
Latinos moving slowly into the mainstream, to ponder his
legacy. The rise of consumerism and the disenfranchisement
of reformism might have pushed him to the fringes. At first
sight his ethos in the field might have little to say to our
middle-class angst, the one that colors the way we reflect on
Hispanic history in the United States. But it is an outright
mistake to let our class differences obliterate the bridges between
us. It is true that toward the end of his sixty-five-year-long
career, Cesar Chavez and America parted ways. Yet it is
the leader valiant enough to redefine his roots, devoted to
make America more elastic, that we must reread and thereafter
reclaim, a dreamer that proved that wealth and a formal
education aren’t everything, that humankind is not
about getting ahead of everyone else but getting ahead together.
Not Chavez the myth but Chavez the ordinary man,
neither the name nor the face but the message—“Let’s
enable common people to do uncommon things”—awaits
attention. In the attempt to agglutinate us all under a single
rubric, his Chicano self must be opened up to embrace all
Americans, particularly all of those with diverse Hispanic
backgrounds. For the fact that he was Mexican is significant
but not confining. His Mexicanness, he showed us—and
now I see—is a lesson in universality.

Toward the end of
Sal Si Puedes,
Matthiessen records a
few lines told to him by a black migrant farm worker: “But
you know what I—what I really think? You know what I
really think? I really think that one day the world will be
great. I really believe the world gonna be great one day.”
This was Chavez’s own view as well. A better world, built
one step at a time, without exclusionary laws, one harmonious
enough for every person. He believed democracy to be
the best political system of government, a view he learned to
appreciate not from his ancestral Mexico but in the United
States. He was a great advocate of it, even though his foes at
times portrayed him as antidemocratic. What he learned
about democracy he learned the hard way: through punches
and clashes.  .  .  .  But he was patient. In order for democracy
to work, Chavez liked to say, “people must want it to.” And
he added: “To make it work [for us all], we have to work at it
full time.”

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
10.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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