Authors: Peter Matthiessen
Tags: #Biography, #History
With a New Foreword by
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
Berkeley Los Angeles London
A portion of the contents of this book appeared originally in the
, in somewhat
Lines on pp. 228–29 from “If I Had a Hammer” (The Hammer Song) are used by permission.
Words and Music by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. TRO © 1958 and 1962 Ludlow Music, Inc.
New York, NY.
Lines on page 226 from “Pastures of Plenty” are used by permission. Words and Music by
Woody Guthrie. TRO © 1960 and 1963 Ludlow Music, Inc. New York, NY.
An excerpt by Rev. Wayne C. Hartmire Jr. from an article in the June 1966 issue of St
is reprinted by permission. © 1966 by Mount Angel Abbey, Inc. All rights reserved.
An excerpt by Reverend Drake from the October 1968 issue of
is used by
permission. © 1968 by Presbyterian Life.
The editors of
magazine have granted permission to quote from “The Tale of the Raza,”
by Luis Valdez, July 1966. © 1966 by Ramparts Magazine, Inc.
Postscript, “Cesar Chavez,” by Peter Matthiessen, first appeared in the
, May 17, 1993, p. 82.
Foreword by Ilan Stavans first appeared in
, no. 84 (July 2000). © 2000 by Ilan Stavans.
University of California Press
Berkeley and Los Angeles, California
University of California Press, Ltd.
© 1969, 2014 by Peter Matthiessen
Foreword by Marc Grossman © 2014 by Marc Grossman
First California Paperback, 2000
The Library of Congress has cataloged an earlier edition of this book as follows:
To the farm workers and the American future
HE call still haunts me. I was in my Sacramento office
shortly after 9 a.m. on Friday, April 23, 1993. Paul Chavez, Cesar
Chavez’s middle son and one of eight siblings, was on the
phone. “I’ve got some bad news,” he said, his voice cracking.
“My dad has died.”
Paul was calling from La Paz, the farm worker movement
headquarters at the Tehachapi Mountain hamlet of Keene, east
of Bakersfield, just after hearing the news from union staff.
They had discovered Cesar’s body when the United Farm
Workers president had failed to awake in his room at the San
Luis, Arizona, farm worker home where they were staying.
I’d known Cesar for twenty-four years, since beginning as a
volunteer grape boycotter in 1969 while an undergraduate at
the University of California, Irvine—and had served as his
longtime press secretary, speechwriter, and personal aide.
Peter Matthiessen’s beautiful portrait of Cesar Chavez deepened
my commitment when it first appeared later that year,
and it is just as compelling four and a half decades later. My
task here is to offer insights gleaned since
Sal Si Puedes
initially published and bring readers up to date through Cesar’s
passing in 1993, and beyond.
Paul Chavez was about to break the news to his mother,
Helen, and other family members at La Paz. He asked my help
in getting word to the press.
I made some calls, trying to keep a lid on the story so family
members could be notified before word broke on the news.
But soon it was all over the media. Fortunately, most immediate
family members were already informed.
The drive down California’s endless Central Valley was a
blur—until the Mercury air terminal at Meadows Field, Bakersfield’s
airport. Helen Chavez, her eight children, many of her
then twenty-seven grandchildren, and other family and
friends stood on the tarmac in the early evening light. We
watched for the twin-engine plane chartered by a UFW supporter
that was flying from Yuma with Cesar’s body.
Helen had been making tamales that morning, to welcome
her husband back home, in the kitchen of the family’s modest
two-bedroom wood-frame house at La Paz. After learning
that her husband of forty-five years had died, Helen kept on
making tamales. Her children said that others urged them to
be strong for their mother—but she was comforting them.
Cesar’s brother Richard Chavez and Arturo Rodriguez,
who would soon succeed Cesar as UFW president, helped lift
the body from the plane. A white shroud covered him. They
carried Cesar toward a waiting hearse. Paul led everyone in
the Lord’s Prayer. The body was later turned over to Irving
Nichols, a former Bakersfield farm worker whom Cesar had
befriended years before, who was now taking a leave from an
African American funeral home in Los Angeles.
An honor guard of farm workers accompanied the body
from that night on, taking turns standing silently, holding UFW
flags. The idea came from when Cesar was one of many standing
silent watch over Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s casket in
New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the night before his funeral
The task of organizing Cesar’s funeral began. We were
expecting big crowds, although no one anticipated the forty-five-thousand-plus
who journeyed to Delano. His passing was
a deep personal loss. Thankfully, he died of natural causes,
peacefully in his sleep, which was something of a relief because
we had always worried that he would meet a violent end
like the Kennedy brothers, Dr. King, and his hero Gandhi.
I was with Cesar at the two times in the 1970s when federal
agents notified the union about plots on his life. “I’ll live to be
a hundred if they don’t get me with a bullet or if I don’t die in
a car crash,” he’d say. His father had died at 101. His mother
was ninety-nine. Many first cousins had lived into their nineties.
He was a strict vegetarian who meditated and exercised.
But the years took their toll.
His last long fast, in 1988, over the pesticide poisoning of
farm workers and their children, lasted thirty-six days; he was
sixty-one. Cesar still labored sixteen-hour days at sixty-six.
He hadn’t taken a real vacation in thirty-one years, since starting
the union in 1962. He insisted on the cheapest seats on
red-eye flights traveling across the country to save his union
some money. “You’re worth the extra money” for a regular
plane ticket, Helen would tell him. It didn’t do any good. No
one could tell Cesar Chavez to spend more or reduce his hectic
He rarely traveled by plane in California or Arizona. As his
aide, I gave up trying to count how many times we’d meet at
his house before 4 a.m. to be in a distant part of the state by
midmorning. After a full day’s schedule, we’d make the long
drive back to La Paz and get home at 2 or 3 a.m. He’d be back
at work that morning before anyone else.
“My father packed 120 years of work into sixty-six years of
life,” his son Paul said.
• • •
Cesar endured hardships and sacrifices in building the movement.
Not the least of them fell on his family.
I grew up among his older kids, first getting to know Cesar
through his eldest son, Fernando, when we were nineteen- or
twenty-year-old college students. We were the same age
and remain close friends. I still call him Polly, his nickname,
Fernando told me how his father never took him as a teenager
or later to a baseball game. They never played catch together.
Tensions can develop any way between fathers and
sons, especially when they have similar personalities and
traits. Fernando also often didn’t have his father around. As
Cesar put it, the work had to be so important that he was even
willing to sacrifice spending time with his family. Matthiessen
touches on this tension in
Sal Si Puedes,
and it is a theme in
Diego Luna’s new film
Helen said Cesar loved being with his children. He would
read to them and take them for weekend drives, to the park,
or on annual weeklong family vacations. After the union
work began, such occasions grew fewer and fewer, until they
Cesar attended the 1970 church wedding of his daughter
Eloise in Delano, went to the reception, and performed the
traditional first dance with the new bride. Then he jumped in
the car for the five-hour drive to Salinas, where a lettuce strike
was breaking out. A year or so later I heard Cesar offer advice
to a soon-to-be son-in-law about how the quality of time you
spend with your family is more important than the quantity
Cesar wasn’t around much when his children were growing
up, leaving their care to Helen. The older kids took care of
the younger ones once the Delano Grape Strike started in
1965, and Helen spent long days on picket lines and taking
over the farm workers credit union from Cesar.
Fernando left Delano several years into the strike because
of merciless harassment in high school by grower and Anglo
town kids. He went to live in the East San Jose barrio of Sal Si
Puedes with his grandparents—Cesar’s parents, Librado and
Juana Chavez—to whom he was close.
At the height of the Vietnam War in 1969, Fernando filed
as a conscientious objector with his Bakersfield draft board.
When he told his dad he would refuse the draft, Cesar said,
“That will take a lot of moral courage. You could go to prison.
Are you prepared to do that?”
“I don’t know, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” Fernando
replied. He was drafted and refused induction.
This was the era of the Nixon administration and enemies’
lists. We learned later that hundreds of FBI agents had spied
on Cesar and infiltrated the UFW for nearly seven years, beginning
in 1965. Cesar’s FBI file runs to 1,434 pages, although
“no evidence of Communist or subversive influence was ever
developed,” according to a 1995
Los Angeles Times