Authors: Miriam Pawel
Ross introduced himself to the priest and told his story. He had directed the government migrant labor camp in the San Joaquin Valley, made famous by Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck. Ross helped resettle Japanese interned during the war. Then he established a grassroots group for Mexican Americans in Los Angeles called the Community Service Organization (CSO). The CSO registered voters, offered English classes, and filed discrimination claims, all in an effort to teach Mexican Americans to exert power. The group had made headlines with its massive voter registration drives and successful advocacy for victims of police brutality. Ross was ready to expand to Northern California, and he had chosen San Jose because of its large Mexican American community.
Like the priest, Ross was a striking figure, tall, angular, and unconventional. Both were native Californians immersed in the world of poor Mexican Americans and fiercely committed champions of the oppressed. At forty-two, Ross was almost a generation older. His Spanish was very limited and his accent as poor as McDonnell’s was flawless. Where McDonnell was philosophical, Ross was pragmatic. Both men exuded charisma that attracted devoted followers, though both were reticent to talk about themselves. They preferred to stay in the background and push others forward.
After their first long talk, McDonnell referred Ross to a young nurse, Alicia Hernandez, who ran the well-baby clinic that shared space with the Catholic congregation. Once a week McDonnell pulled a curtain across the altar and the church became a clinic. Helen Chavez brought her children for checkups, and so did Richard Chavez’s wife, Sally. Hernandez knew every family in the barrio with young children, and she agreed to help Ross set up what he called house meetings, small gatherings to meet the new guy in town.
Ross went back to see McDonnell, and the two schemed over lunch. “Map session with Father McDonnell. Fired him up to take me to families,” Ross wrote in his diary. The next day McDonnell picked Ross up for back-to-back meetings, first a few parishioners at a family home and then a larger group at the Tremont Avenue church hall. The crowd was thin, so the priest rounded up more. McDonnell led the rosary. Then Ross delivered his pitch: “Who I was, why assigned to study San Jose, why asked Father McDonnell to call people together,” he recounted in his diary. The residents told Ross how their children came home with sores on their feet from playing in the nearby creek that was polluted with refuse from the cannery, and about the streets strewn with garbage the city neglected to collect. Ross told them how a voter registration drive had propelled the first Mexican American onto the Los Angeles City Council. “That’s [the] CSO story in LA. Do you think such an organization is needed here?” he asked them. “Do you have problems? Am I needed?”
Word of the house meetings spread. Cesar and Richard Chavez were skeptical about any gringo who claimed he had come to help. Surely he must want something in return. But McDonnell and Hernandez continued to vouch for Ross and spent time introducing him to potential leaders and recruits. One or the other took Ross to house meetings, usually two a night. At every session, Ross asked who would volunteer to host another meeting. At the end of his first month in San Jose, on Friday, June 6, Ross finished his 6:00 p.m. house meeting and tried to cram in a second at 53 Scharff Street, the Chavez home. But the hour had grown too late, he was politely turned away, and agreed to return
the following Monday.
On Monday evening, June 9, 1952, more than a dozen family members
and a few friends crammed into the green wood-frame house where Cesar and Helen Chavez lived with their four small children. Ross delivered a speech he had by now given dozens of times in dilapidated houses and shacks around Sal Si Puedes. His message was radical: the most powerless people could transform their lives if enough of them worked together.
As Alicia Hernandez translated his talk into Spanish, Ross explained the work he had done in Los Angeles with the CSO. He recounted the story of “Bloody Christmas,” an infamous riot where Los Angeles police beat Mexican youths and then charged them with crimes. He detailed how the CSO successfully pressed for police brutality charges and mounted a defense that exonerated the Mexican youths. Ross told the people in the crowded living room they could change a system that had cheated them out of wages, shortchanged their kids, humiliated their wives, and stripped away their dignity.
That night, Ross recorded his first impressions of the man who would become his most celebrated student: “Chavez has real push,
understanding, loyalty, enthusiasm, grassroots leadership qualities. From Kern City, now at Box factory.”
Chavez was working at the General Box lumber yard. One day a week he unloaded wood from the railroad cars, and the rest of the week he sorted and stacked the lumber that was shipped off to a mill and made into boxes. For a bright, curious twenty-five-year-old, trapped in dead-end jobs, Ross’s message was intoxicating. Cesar leaped at the opportunity. He volunteered to help Ross register new voters and work on a campaign to establish a CSO chapter in San Jose. From the beginning, Ross observed two important qualities
in Chavez: an understanding of the nature of power, and a sense of urgency.
Soon after he began helping Ross, Chavez met McDonnell, and the trinity was complete. Chavez lived around the corner from the church on Tremont, but he had not been active religiously. Now the priest became a friend and teacher, Chavez’s first model of servanthood. The close collaboration between the Spanish Mission Band and the CSO foreshadowed the way Chavez would later use religious leaders to great advantage in his own campaigns. McDonnell was a religious conservative who invariably began discussions with the admonition “Let’s pray,” followed by a lengthy prayer. He was passionately committed to social justice and his own version of liberation theology a decade before Vatican II. In his actions, he showed Chavez how the church could be an advocate for the working poor. With his words, McDonnell offered the theological underpinning for the Catholic Church’s support of labor unions.
McDonnell gave Chavez copies of the two papal encyclicals that proclaimed the rights of workers to organize—Pope Pius XI’s
, the 1891 encyclical from Pope Leo XIII, the “workingman’s pope,” who urged that workers form unions for the purpose of collective bargaining. The priest lent Chavez books, which sparked a lifelong passion for reading. In biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and Gandhi, Chavez gained his first exposure to nonviolent protest. “I would do anything to get the Father to tell me more about labor history,” Chavez later recalled.
McDonnell experimented with novel ideas that left a lasting influence on Chavez. The priest set up a credit union and established cooperative housing for workers. Because funeral homes charged more than most workers could afford, McDonnell formed a burial association. He researched the law and discovered anyone could conduct a burial in California with a permit from city hall. Men in the parish built simple wooden coffins, lined with white linens sewed by their wives. McDonnell accompanied family members to the mortuary, where they demanded the release of the deceased relative. Chavez drove a station wagon, which they used to carry the body back to the church. Funeral services, McDonnell explained, served as a way to draw Mexicans closer to the church—particularly men, who often said the rosary for the first time when they attended the
, the wake that often lasted all night.
At the county jail, in one large room where prisoners made hot chocolate over open fires, Chavez helped McDonnell say mass. Chavez and another young CSO recruit, Herman Gallegos, often piled into the back of the priest’s army-surplus jeep. McDonnell threw them rosary beads and told them to pray. “God will provide” was his favorite saying. Often the priest fell asleep from exhaustion before the rosary was finished.
The priest gave Chavez and Gallegos tutorials, drawing lines in the dirt to explain subjects such as Public Law 78. The federal law, signed by President Truman in 1951, extended the Mexican guest worker program long after the wartime shortages had passed, ensuring growers continued access to cheap Mexican labor. On weekends, McDonnell borrowed buses from parochial schools, called on Chavez and Gallegos to drive them to the labor camps, filled the buses with guest workers, and brought the Mexicans to the church.
Chavez helped McDonnell build the first real church in Sal Si Puedes. The priest had claimed an old church building—pews, stained glass windows, furniture, and all—and arranged to move it to a site he had acquired, just a few blocks from the Chavez home. Volunteers helped a contractor remove the roof, cut the old church into three pieces, and move them across town. They reassembled the building, and Chavez helped nail on the roof.
Our Lady of Guadalupe church opened on December 12, 1953, the feast day of the patron saint, the most important cultural icon for Mexicans. The new hall doubled as meeting space, recreation hall, and youth center, and housed a public health clinic one night a week. The sacristy often served as Father Don’s bedroom. The church had no bell, so McDonnell used a megaphone and whistled a popular Mexican hymn, “O Maria, Madre Mía,” to call people to mass.
McDonnell’s childhood friend Tom McCullough had been building his own parish in Stockton, at the north end of the diocese. The more they ministered to farmworkers, the more the two Macs became convinced that a labor union in the fields was necessary. They became actively engaged in promoting the idea. McDonnell used any opportunity to speak out against the radical imbalance of power between the church’s two key constituencies—wealthy agricultural landowners, and poor workers. In an address to a national organization of clerics who worked in Spanish-speaking communities, McDonnell spoke starkly of the two groups that would soon become locked in prolonged battle in the California fields. The priest invoked the image of the Mexicans’ patron saint in an appeal for the Catholic Church to help rectify the injustice faced by farmworkers:
In their meeting halls the picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe is enshrined. She is their Queen. They carry her picture in their wallets. On the other hand, there are already formed and have been operating for many years the gigantic multibillion dollar Growers’ Associations in many of which Catholic growers play a considerable role. Will Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mother of the Lord of Heaven, bring together and unite as brothers these two groups, the people of the land who seek to work in accordance with the dignity of their human nature, and the powerful economic interests that control the agriculture of the state? We pray that she will so that the good order and the peace of the kingdom of Christ may reign and the land and its people may give glory to God. But it is not enough to pray. This is the time for action.
The action would have to wait a few years, but when the time came, Chavez would build on all that he had learned from McDonnell and act with Our Lady of Guadalupe by his side.
It’s just single-mindedness, just nothing but that . . . I think I was born with it. I mean, I just, when I want to do something, I make up my mind I want to do it. I decide.
In the late summer of 1953, police arrested a Mexican teenager after a brawl in a Salinas Valley town, questioned him for more than twenty hours, and then charged the boy with the murder of a white high school football player. Fred Ross was asked to help calm racial tensions. Ross agreed to spend a few days in King City, two hours south of San Jose, and invited along his new protégé, Cesar Chavez. Helen was starting to go into labor with their fifth child. Cesar dropped her off
at the hospital and went with Ross.
Ross approved wholeheartedly of Chavez’s priorities. His commitment convinced Ross that he had found a young man with the makings of a first-rate organizer. Ross was impressed by the twenty-six-year-old’s perseverance, his work ethic, and his “burning interest.” He was a quick study, too. “As soon as you drew the picture, he got the point,” Ross would recall a few years later. “The whole question of power,
the development of power within the group.”
Developing power within the Mexican American community was at the heart of the CSO mission. Ross had begun the organization in Los Angeles in 1947, after a promising young candidate, Edward Roybal, failed to win election to the city council in a heavily Mexican American district—because so few Mexican Americans were registered to vote. Roybal and Ross teamed up on a grassroots voter registration campaign, and Roybal made history in 1949. His victory helped the CSO grow, attracting people who had thought they were powerless to fight City Hall. The organization branched out and tackled police brutality, discrimination in the schools, and second-rate services in Mexican neighborhoods. Its success marked the beginning of the civil rights movement for Mexican Americans in California.
Even as he became deeply involved in building a CSO chapter in San Jose in 1952, Chavez did not imagine such work might turn into a paying job. But he saw himself as a natural fit. Describing the requisite characteristics for an organizer a few years later, Chavez said: “It’s just single-mindedness, just nothing but that . . . I think I was born with it. I mean, I just, when I want to do something, I make up my mind
I want to do it. I decide.” The second important quality was another one he had grown up with: “Having the instinct to help, to work with people, to really want to help people.”