Authors: Miriam Pawel
To the memory of my father,
who taught me how to write,
and to raise hell.
The dark brown man’s deep, sad eyes scanned the roomful of San Francisco’s wealthy and worldly. Few assembled in the gilded splendor of the Sheraton-Palace Hotel on this fall day in 1984 had seen a lettuce field, or a farmworker bent over in pain. They had all seen the face of Cesar Chavez.
The city’s political and business elite had come seeking wisdom from a man with an eighth-grade education and a passion that drove him to tilt at windmills until they turned. “He remains,” said Michael G. Lee, the attorney who introduced Chavez, “a revered, almost mystical figure.”
His thick black hair streaked with gray, his face and stomach gently rounded, Chavez stood just a few inches taller than his hostess, child-actress-turned-diplomat Shirley Temple Black. Unlike the presidents and Nobel laureates who typically addressed the Commonwealth Club, Chavez didn’t own a suit or tie. He wore a white shirt and argyle vest.
Nothing about his appearance was remarkable, except his eyes. People noticed Cesar Chavez’s eyes.
In a speech that lasted a scant half hour, he traced the path he had traveled in fifty-seven years, from the cotton fields of Arizona to the pulpit of the nation’s oldest public affairs forum, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt had once outlined the New Deal.
Chavez didn’t dwell on his David-vs.-Goliath triumphs in founding the United Farm Workers union. His audience had grown up with the grape boycott, which forced the most powerful industry in California to negotiate contracts with its poorest workers.
Chavez was an improbable idol in an era of telegenic leaders and charismatic speakers. The cadences of his speech were flat, his phrases often trite. In his luncheon speech, Chavez described growers as punch-drunk boxers and spoke of chickens coming home to roost. His power lay not in words, but in actions. He had willed the future to be different for farmworkers and swept up thousands in his quest.
Chavez described his life’s work as a crusade against injustice. He spoke of his anger as a child watching his parents humiliated in the fields, and his rage at the racist treatment of Mexican Americans. He traced his rise as a community organizer and his decision to walk away from a steady job to try to bring dignity to farmworkers.
Three days before Chavez spoke, his longtime adversary Ronald Reagan had won reelection to the White House by a landslide, carrying all but one state. The Reagan era was not kind to labor leaders and liberal movements. Many of Chavez’s supporters had grown disheartened. Others had abandoned
in anger and disillusionment.
In the 1970s, the United Farm Workers had represented almost all who harvested grapes from California’s vines and half of those who picked lettuce from its fields. As Chavez spoke in the Palace Hotel ballroom on November 9, 1984, the UFW had just one contract in the table grape vineyards and a handful in the vegetable fields.
While the audience dined on pork tenderloin
with cranberry-mustard sauce, Chavez described farmworkers who drank from irrigation pipes and lived under trees. Children born to farmworkers were 25 percent more likely to die at birth. Their parents’ average life span was two-thirds that of the general population. Laws protecting union activity in the fields went unenforced.
Chavez recited a litany of woes that testified to his union’s failures. Then he waved away those facts, not as unimportant but as subordinate to a greater truth. He looked ahead to a twenty-first century when power would belong to people who looked like him.
“The union’s survival, its very existence, sent out a signal to all Hispanics that we were fighting for our dignity,” he said. “That we were challenging and overcoming injustice, that we were empowering the least educated among us, the poorest among us. The message was clear. If it could happen in the fields, it could happen anywhere: in the cities, in the courts, in the city councils, in the state legislatures. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but the coming of our union signaled the start of great changes among Hispanics that are only now beginning to be seen.”
As waiters cleared away the apple strudel, Chavez concluded his speech with the prescience that marked so much of his career. Within thirty years, he told the audience, the great cities of California would be run by farmworkers, their children, and their grandchildren. This radical vision—like his embrace of organic farming, yoga, and vegetarian diets—would become conventional wisdom long after he was gone.
“We have looked into the future,” he said, “and the future is ours.”
Twenty-five years later, Barack Obama entered the White House with a campaign slogan borrowed from Chavez:
Si se puede
. Yes, we can. And when the nation’s first black president ran for reelection, he traveled to central California to place a red rose on Cesar Chavez’s grave and declare his union headquarters a national monument. The gesture was both recognition of Chavez’s heroic stature and an acknowledgment of the Latino political power that Chavez had prophesied.
Chavez’s place in history is secure; the route he traveled from migrant worker to national icon has yet to be explored. The path has become well worn, so strewn with flowers and encomiums that reality lies half buried beneath the legends. Chavez nurtured those legends—yet he also took pains to ensure that each footprint might one day be unearthed. In thousands of papers and hundreds of tape recordings that he carefully preserved rest the intimate details of his remarkable journey.
Like the icon of the Virgen de Guadalupe, so omnipresent in his movement, the mosaic of Cesar Chavez viewed up close assumes a complexity absent from afar. Myriad pieces come together in an image illuminated not by myth, but by humanity.
“Unions, like other institutions, can come and go,” Chavez told the Commonwealth Club audience in 1984, in what could have passed as a eulogy for his crusade. “Regardless of what the future holds for the union, regardless of what the future holds for farmworkers, our accomplishments cannot be undone.
, our cause, doesn’t have to be experienced twice. The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm.” Cesar Chavez’s legacy would not be in the fields, but in the rise of his people.
The last question at the Commonwealth Club luncheon was whether, given the chance, he would do it all over again. The man with the deep, sad eyes that saw so much did not hesitate.
“I would thirty times over, yes.”
March 1927–April 1962
Viewed from the air, the North Gila Valley is shaped like a boot, toe pointing west. Along the sole of the boot runs the Gila River, a name seized by the Spanish from an Indian word meaning “river that runs salty.” The Gila empties into the Colorado River at the toe of the boot, on the border of California, just outside of Yuma, Arizona.
The valley on the Arizona side is a patchwork of fields and canals that irrigate this fertile stretch of the Sonora Desert. Cotton, alfalfa, and Bermuda grass tolerate the saline soil and flourish in the year-round sun.
In the foothills of the Laguna Mountains that line the eastern edge, about halfway up the back of the boot, are remnants of a once-sturdy adobe house and storage room built near the start of the twentieth century, when homesteaders first laid claim to the valley.
Three decades later, the household was headed by Librado Chavez, a forty-two-year-old cotton farmer. The family included his elderly mother, Dorotea, his wife, Juana, and their three small children, Rita, Richard, and Cesar.
The home stood on a dirt road alongside a small canal. The compound had no number; everyone just knew it as the house built by Papa Chayo. His eighty-five-year-old widow had inherited the farm, and Librado paid her $4 a month in rent. Like most families nearby, they spoke Spanish. The adults had all been born in Mexico, the children in Arizona.