Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (9 page)

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
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“Those people make a lot of money that way,” Chavez
said. “A
.” At this moment, he looked ugly. “In the Union,
the workers get an honest day’s pay, because both sides
understand the arrangement and accept it. Without a
union, the people are always cheated, and they are so innocent.”
In silence, we walked on up Eleventh Avenue to
Albany and turned south along the cotton fields. It was
eight o’clock now, and the morning was hot. The flat farmland
stretched away unbroken into dull mists of agricultural
dust, nitrates and insecticides, still unsettled from the
day before, that hid the round brown mountains of the
Coast Range.

Chavez said that many of the green-carders—and especially
those who would return to Mexico—felt they could
beat the Union wage scale by working furiously on a piece-rate
basis; others did not join the Union out of
ignorance—they had never heard of a union—or fear of reprisal. “It’s
the whole system of fear, you know. The ones we’ve converted—well,
out at Schenley we have a contract, and P. L.
Vargas, on his ranch committee—there was a guy named
Danny. Danny was so anti-Union that he went to the management
at Schenley and said, ‘Give me a gun; I’ll go out
and kill some of those strikers.’ He just hated us, and he
didn’t know why. Today he’s a real good Unionist; he has a
lot of guts and does a lot of work, but he still doesn’t know
why. He was working inside when we came with the picket
line, and he wouldn’t walk out, and I guess he felt guilty
so he went too far the other way. And also, he told me later,
‘I didn’t know what a union was, I never heard of a union;
I had no idea what it was or how it worked. I came from a
small village down in Mexico!’ You see? It’s the old story.
He was making more money than he had ever seen in
Mexico, and the Union was a threat.

“Anyway, we won there, and got a union shop, and all
the guys who went out on strike got their jobs back. And,
man, they wanted to clean house, they wanted to get
Danny, and I said no. ‘Well, he doesn’t want to join the
Union! And the contract says if he doesn’t join the Union,
he can’t work there!’ So I challenged them. I said, ‘One man
threatens you? And you’ve got a contract? Do you know
what the real challenge is? Not to get him out, but to get
. If you were good organizers you’d get him, but
you’re not—you’re lazy!’ So they went after Danny, and
the pressure began to build against him. He was mad as
hell, he held out for three months, and he was encouraged
by the Anglos, the white guys—they had the best jobs, mechanics
and all, and they didn’t want to join the Union
either. But finally Danny saw the light, and they did too.
That contract took about six months to negotiate, so by the
time we got around to setting up a negotiating committee,
Danny had not only been converted but had been elected
to the committee. So when the committee walked in there,
P. L. was one of them and Danny was another, and the employers
stared at him: ‘What are you doing here, Danny?’”
Chavez laughed. “And now he’s a real St. Paul; he’ll never
turn against the Union because he knows both sides. People
who don’t know, and come on so enthusiastic and all at
first, they may be turncoats one day, but not the ones like
Danny. That’s why the converted ones are our best men.

“You know how we make enemies? A guy gets out of
high school, and his parents have been farm workers, so
he gets a job, say, as a clerk at the Bank of America. This
way, you know, he gets into the climate, into the atmosphere”—Chavez
shook his head in bafflement—“and I’ll
be damned if in two years they haven’t done a terrific job on
him, not by telling him, but just
by  .  .  .  by
, and
before you know it the guy is actually saying there’s no discrimination!
‘Hell, there’s no poverty!’ See? He knows his
place. Or he gets a job at a retail store and then feels
threatened because our people are making more than he
does. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘I went to high school for four years,
so how come these farm workers are making more than I
do?’ That
hurts. Either way he is threatened by the

On the left as we walked south on Albany were the small
houses of large families, mostly Mexican. Though these
houses are simple, their neatness reflects a dignity that was
not possible in the labor camps, which have always been
the ugliest symbol of the migrant workers’ plight. “Besides
being so bad, they divide the families,” Chavez said. “We
don’t want people living out there, we want them in their
own houses. As long as they’re living in the camps, they’re
under the thumb of the employer.” He nodded toward the
small houses. “In Delano the need for housing is being met,
even for the migrants. I mean, if we won the whole thing
tomorrow, signed contracts with all the growers, we’d have
to use some of the camps for a little while, but right now
the people in the camps are strikebreakers.” I kicked a
stone, and he watched it skid into the field. “We’re going to
get rid of those camps,” he said, as if making himself a

A car passed us, bursting with cries, and rattled to a halt
a short way beyond. Two workers were driving a third to
the Forty Acres, the site of the proposed new Union headquarters,
and to my surprise—we had been headed for the
Union offices at the corner of Albany and Asti streets—Chavez
suggested that we ride out there. The car turned
west at Garces Highway and rolled two miles through the
cotton and alfalfa to a barren area of mud, shacks and unfinished
construction on the north side of the road. Here
the car left us and went back to town, and the third man, a
solitary Anglo tramp, a renegade from the thirties who
helps the farm workers whenever he comes to town, shouted
cheerily at Chavez and marched off to water some scattered
saplings that shriveled slowly in the August heat.

“We’ve planted a lot of trees. Elms, mostly, and Modesto
ash—only the cheapest kinds.” Chavez stood with his back
to the road, hands in hip pockets, gazing with pleasure at
the desolation. The Forty Acres lies between the state road
and the city dump. Useless for farming in its present condition,
the property was obtained in 1966 from a widow
who could not afford to pay the taxes on it. “Don’t get me
started on my plans,” he said. To Chavez, who envisions the
first migrant workers center, the place is already beautiful;
he comes here regularly to walk around and let his plans
take shape. “There’s alkali in this land,” he said. “We’re
trying to get something growing here, to cut down the

At the Forty Acres, near the highway, an adobe building
which will house gas pumps, auto repair shop and a cooperative
store had recently been completed, though it was
not yet in use: the shop was heaped high with food stores
for the strikers, donated by individuals and agencies all
over the United States. Just across from it is the windowless
small room in which Chavez lived during the twenty-five-day
fast that he undertook in February and March 1968.
Behind this building was a temporary aggregation of shacks
and trailers which included the workers clinic and the
Union newspaper,
El Malcriado
(the “rebellious child,”
the “nonconformist,” the “protester”—there is no simple
translation), which issues both English and Spanish editions
every fortnight. Originally
El Malcriado
was a propaganda
organ, shrill and simplistic: it saw Lyndon Johnson
as a “Texas grower” careless of the lives of the Vietnamese
“farm workers.” Today it is slanted but not irresponsible,
and it is well-edited.

One green trailer at the Forty Acres, bearing the legend
, was the contribution of the International
Ladies’ Garment Workers Union; its medical
staff, like that of
El Malcriado
and most of the rest of the
UFWOC operation, is made up entirely of volunteers. So
is the intermittent labor being done on the headquarters
building, a gray shell in the northwest corner of the property.
The work was supervised by Chavez’s brother Richard,
who had been sent off a few days before to help out
with the boycott in New York. “The strike is the important
thing,” Chavez said, moving toward this building. “We
work on the Forty Acres when we get a little money, or
some volunteers.” The day before, six carpenters from a local
in Bakersfield had given their Saturday to putting up
gray fiberboard interior walls, and Chavez, entering the
building, was delighted with the progress. “Look at that!”
he kept saying. “Those guys really went to town!” The
plumbing had been done by a teacher at Berkeley, and two
weeks before, forty-seven electricians from Los Angeles,
donating materials as well as labor, had wired the whole
building in six hours. “I’ve never seen forty-seven electricians,”
I admitted, trying not to laugh, and Chavez grinned.
“You should have seen it,” he assured me. “I could hardly
get into the building. Everywhere I went, I was in somebody’s
way, so I just went out through the window.”

The building will combine Union offices and a service
center, where workers can obtain advice on legal problems,
immigration, driver’s licenses, tax returns, and other matters.
We inspected the credit union, legal offices, the hiring
hall-and-auditorium, the dining hall, kitchen and rest

In the northeast corner were small cubicles for the Union
officers. “Everybody was out here claiming his office.” Chavez
smiled, shaking his head. “We’ve outgrown this building
even before we move into it, and I guess they thought
that somebody was going to get left out.” He grunted.
“They were right.” We had come to the cubicle in the
corner. “This is mine, I guess,” he said, “but now they don’t
want me here.” I asked why. He was silent for a little while,
looking restlessly about him. “I don’t know.” He shrugged
and took a breath, as if on the point of saying something
painful. “They’re very worried about security or something.
I don’t know.” Stupidly, I failed to drop the subject. “I
guess the corner is more exposed,” I said. “They want you
somewhere inside.”

Chavez walked away from me. “This is the conference
room,” he called, from around a corner. “This will save a lot
of time. People are constantly coming in, you know  .  .  .  ”
His voice trailed off, resumed again. “The way things are
going, we don’t have enough office space for the newspaper
or the ranch committees  .  .  .  Oh! Look at that!” He was turning
a complete circle. “Those guys
went to town! It’s
entirely changed!” He finished his circle, beaming. “The
first center for farm workers in history!” (A year later
Richard Chavez took me out to see the progress at the Forty
Acres, which was negligible. “We’re so damn busy,” Richard
said, “and there’s always something that needs the money

Outside again, we walked around the grounds, in the
hot emptiness of Sunday. “Over there”—he pointed—“will
be another building, a little training center there, kind of
a  .  .  .  a
study center for nonviolence, mostly for people in the
Union, the organizers and ranch committees. Nonviolent
tactics, you know—to be nonviolent in a monastery is one
thing, but being nonviolent in a struggle for justice is another.
And we’ll stress honesty. Some of these guys will be
getting a lot of power as the Union develops, and some will
be very good and some won’t know how to handle it. If
someone in the hiring hall is willing to take a bribe to put
one guy ahead of another on a job, he may also be willing
to steal a hundred dollars from the Union, or accept a hundred
dollars for an act of violence. There’s all kinds of
chances for corruption, and things can go to hell
fast—we’ve seen that in other unions. So the best way to teach
them is by example.”

His glance asked that I take what he was about to say
as nothing boastful. Chavez is a plain-spoken man who does
not waste his own time or his listener’s with false humility,
yet he is uncomfortable when the necessity arises to speak
about himself, and may even emit a gentle groan. “I mean,
you can write a million pamphlets on honesty, you can
write books on it, and manuals, and it doesn’t work—it only
works by example. I have to give up a lot of things, because
I can’t ask people to sacrifice if I won’t sacrifice myself.”
He was glad to change the subject. “We have some great
guys in this Union, some really great guys. We’ve put together
farm workers and volunteers, people who just
wanted to do something for the cause. We have so many
volunteers that we save only the best; they come and go,
but the good ones never go. You don’t say ‘Stay!’ They stay
of their own accord!

“In a way we’re all volunteers; even the ones—the lawyers
and everybody—whose salaries are paid by outside
people; they’re not making money. You start paying the
strikers for what they should do for themselves, then everything
is done for money, and you’ll never be able to build
anything. It’s not just a question of spending money, and
anyway, we haven’t got it. But the farm workers stand to
benefit directly from the Union; it’s their union, and we’ve
been able to get that across to them—really, you know, it’s
working beautifully. Most of us work for five dollars a week.
Outside people, the Teamsters and everybody, thought we
were crazy, but it’s the only way we can stay in business.
It’s a long, long haul, and there isn’t any money, and if we
start paying wages, then it means that only a
can be
hired, and a few can’t do as much as many.

“It has to be done this way. I’ve been in this fight too
long, almost twenty years, learning and learning, one defeat
after another, always frustration. And then of course, raising
a family—you have to get your family to suffer along
with you, otherwise you can’t do it. But finally we’re
beginning to see daylight, and that’s a great reward. And
then, you see, these farm workers will never be the same.
If they destroyed our union today, these people would
never go back to where they were. They’d get up and fight.
That’s the

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
12.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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