Authors: Miriam Pawel
Chavez plunged into this new world so intensely that the pastime evolved into a calling and then a vocation. His day job was stacking lumber. His night and weekend job was registering voters. He apprenticed himself to Ross, the master organizer.
Cesar and Helen had moved into a small dwelling at the rear of 2397 Summer Street, around the corner from McDonnell’s first church on Tremont Avenue. The one-bedroom house was crammed with cribs: Fernando was three, Sylvia two, Linda one, and Eloise just a few months old when Ross came into their lives. The children slept in a spare, linoleum-floored front room,
the beds leaving space for little more than a sofa. Each evening Chavez came home from work at the box factory, changed clothes, grabbed dinner, and went out with Ross. Even when Helen was sick with kidney problems, Cesar was waiting for Ross every night.
Ross taught through conversation, critiques, and debriefing, and by example. He adopted a routine in San Jose that he would follow the rest of his life, basic steps that soon became second nature to the young lumber handler who tagged along.
The house meeting was the cornerstone of the Ross technique, a sort of Tupperware-party method of organizing where each meeting spawned a few more. Chavez listened closely as Ross made the case for the CSO. Of the twenty thousand Mexican Americans eligible to vote in San Jose, Ross estimated, only two thousand were registered. He explained the influence they could have if they altered that equation. He gave examples of the changes that had occurred when Mexican Americans registered to vote in large numbers. Then he asked what problems people in San Jose would like to address. At the end, Ross asked for help in setting up more meetings: Maybe someone had a few friends they could invite over? The dozens of small meetings and one-on-one conversations built to a large general meeting to formally establish a CSO chapter in San Jose.
When the time came to elect the first slate of officers, Chavez nominated his friend Herman Gallegos for president. Herman nominated Cesar for first vice president. Herman had put himself through college working at gas stations in Sal Si Puedes and had just graduated from San Jose State with a degree in social work. The two men nervously practiced their speeches at Herman’s house into the early hours of the morning the day of the vote. Herman walked with a limp, and in his speech he explained why. As a boy, the only place to play was by the railroad tracks. He had slipped under a train and lost part of his leg. Then it was Cesar’s turn to speak. “I’m not good at speeches,”
he said. “But all I know is that the main reason we’re here tonight is to keep that and a lot of other things from happening to our kids . . . to keep them from having to grow up like we did.”
When the votes were counted, Gallegos and Chavez triumphed over several well-known names in the community. They ran to Ross, elated. He evinced no surprise. People can spot “phonies,” he always said, and they know who is out there actually doing the work.
Chavez, soft-spoken and shy, took charge of the voter registration committee. A successful campaign could not only influence the outcome of the fall election but also cement the reputation of the nascent organization.
Ross directed Chavez with tactics the CSO had pioneered in Los Angeles. First they solicited CSO members fluent in Spanish to serve as deputy registrars, which would enable them to sign up new voters. Ross trained them and then they applied to be certified by the county clerk. The clerk balked. Ross and a local priest, with support from the local labor council, pressured her to cooperate. She swore in six volunteers, who would be paid 10¢ for every new voter. Ross combed through city directories, extracted Spanish surnames, and organized lists based on geography.
Chavez recruited family and friends into six teams and paired each with a deputy registrar. Every evening, Ross gave each team a map marked with assigned streets. Because the registrars could not go door-to-door, “bird dogs” knocked on doors of unregistered voters and dragged them over to the registrar’s table set up nearby. Around 9:00 p.m., Ross picked everyone up and took them for coffee. He offered pointers and made adjustments for the next day. The CSO signed up about four thousand new voters.
On election day, November 4, 1952, CSO volunteers made rounds of telephone calls and drove voters to the polls to ensure a strong turnout.
The CSO was nonpartisan, but Republicans had watched the registration efforts with alarm, assuming the new voters would support Democrats. Just before the election, Republican leaders warned that dozens of illiterate voters were preparing to cast illegal ballots. They posted poll watchers in heavily Mexican precincts, and election inspectors pulled Mexicans aside and subjected them to a “literacy test.” Many were so flustered by the request to read a hundred words of the Constitution that they left, even though they could read English. The story made front-page headlines the next day: “Injection of a racial issue into the election is something we never expected in a democratic community like San Jose,” Chavez said. “Our group has been struggling to prepare itself for a full share of civic responsibility. The blow dealt our effort is most discouraging
and unfair. The assertion unqualified persons were registered as voters is false and malicious.”
Work at the box factory slowed down in the winter months, and Chavez was laid off. He collected unemployment and spent his days in a small CSO office that Ross had opened. People came in with problems, and Chavez tried to help. He ran interference with county agencies, translated documents, and wrote letters for non-English-speakers. As Chavez explained how the organization could help improve their lives, he recruited new members for the CSO.
The high level of interest showed the time was right for organizing Mexican Americans in California, Ross argued as he lobbied for funds to expand the CSO throughout California. He estimated that one-fourth of the three million ethnic Mexicans in the United States lived in California, with “so much to feed upon in the way of accumulated wrongs, that once started [a movement] can’t help but gain momentum.” Mexican Americans had enlisted in the armed services, fought in Korea, tasted equality in the military, and returned home to find they were still second-class citizens. “The yeast of the ferment is supplied by the veterans,” Ross wrote, “home now after fighting for a decent way of life, unwilling to fall back into acceptance of an indecent way, home now after being accepted on an equal basis by their Anglo buddies . . . ashamed to bring their war brides back to the ‘barrio’ and determined to
that ‘barrio’ for those wives and the children to come. These are the potential leaders.”
Another factor made the time ripe for the CSO, an ironic by-product of the Cold War. As Chavez followed Ross around Sal Si Puedes in the early 1950s, the word McCarthyism became a part of the American lexicon, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg waited on death row, and Richard Nixon rose from junior representative to national prominence through his role on the House Un-American Affairs Committee. In response to red-baiting fears stoked by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, which restricted immigration and allowed authorities to bar or deport suspected “subversives.” President Harry S. Truman denounced the measure as “un-American,” but Congress overrode his veto. The law, formally called the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952, reflected the isolationist and xenophobic politics of the time.
But the McCarran-Walter Act had a little-noticed provision that would prove a catalyst for the empowerment of Mexican Americans in California: immigrants older than fifty who could prove they had been in the United States for more than twenty years could take citizenship tests in their native language. The opportunities appealed to Saul Alinsky, the social entrepreneur and agitator who had pioneered the concept of community organizing in Chicago and founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to spread his ideas across the country. Ross had worked for the IAF in the late 1940s when he established the CSO in Los Angeles. Pitching Alinsky to fund the CSO expansion in the summer of 1953, Ross reported the CSO could barely keep up with demand and had enrolled 1,200 Mexicans in citizenship classes in LA and 190 in San Jose.
Alinsky was excited by the opportunity to help the disenfranchised become citizens, vote, and make political demands. “I share your feeling
that you are about to get your teeth into what might well be one of the most significant organizational programs in the nation,” Alinsky wrote Ross on August 5, 1953, appointing him West Coast director of the IAF at a salary of $8,500 a year, plus $4,000 for expenses. “I believe that I am not overstating the fact.” For the next decade, Alinsky and the IAF would provide most of the financing for the CSO.
Ross was eager to leave San Jose and jump-start his efforts around California. A coalition that supported his work put up $400 to hire an assistant for a few months. Ross offered the job to Chavez. In a folksy retelling, Ross described a hesitant Chavez who needed to be coaxed into accepting the offer. “I know I could
do what you’re doing,” Chavez told Ross in the parable. “Geez! There’s nothing I’d like better.
Get out there, you know, and start stirring the
up like he’s been doing. But right then, that same old failure-fear starts freezing my guts.”
Ross was a master storyteller, not hesitant to embellish to make a point, a tactic he passed on to his protégé. It is difficult to believe that Chavez did not leap at the offer of a steady job with decent wages, working as an organizer for the man who had become his mentor. Soon after Ross began working for IAF, Alinsky hired Chavez
as well. He began work as an IAF organizer on March 1, 1954, at a salary of $216 a month. He earned a regular paycheck, with no worries about seasonal layoffs. He was working with his mind instead of his hands, paid to go out and help Mexicans become citizens, vote, and learn to speak up for their rights. He had an expense account to cover gas and out-of-town meals. He bought a suit, and grew a mustache to look older. He was about to turn twenty-seven.
Chavez’s first solo job took him from San Jose to nearby Decoto, an agricultural community that had been overwhelmingly rural and Mexican until a recent building boom brought an influx of Anglos. Ross, who had started the Decoto chapter, told Chavez to take over. The confident, outgoing Ross was a tough act to follow. In response, Chavez developed a tactic that became a key part of his repertoire. If people were unwelcoming, he worked harder. If they shirked responsibility, he did their jobs. “One of his little techniques has always been to shame people into doing something,” Ross said a few years later. “To let them know how hard he was working or he and somebody else were working, and while they wanted and needed more help, well, if people didn’t want to help, that was their decision and if they wanted to make that decision knowing how badly their help was needed and how it was going to hurt other people if they didn’t help, well they could just go ahead and not help. I think that was one of the things he learned
The CSO expanded quickly in Mexican American communities around California. Word spread and spurred demand for more citizenship and English classes. Friends heard from friends: the CSO tracked down lost birth certificates, filled out immigration forms, fought deportation orders, and battled discrimination, all free of charge. By 1955, Chavez was spending many weeks on the road as he helped organize CSO chapters in Salinas, Fresno, Brawley, and San Bernardino. Ross kept moving his top organizer around. Wherever he went, Chavez carried a letter of introduction to the local priest from Father McDonnell: “I have always found him a man of sound principles,
clear thinking, complete integrity and loyalty. I would greatly appreciate all the help and guidance you can give him in his work.”
When Chavez moved to Madera, one of many small rural towns along the spine of the San Joaquin Valley in central California, his arrival made front-page news.
“Cesar Chavez—seeking to make new Americans,” read the caption under his photo in the
. Chavez estimated that three thousand Mexicans in the area qualified under the McCarran-Walter Act to take citizenship tests in Spanish. From the day he arrived, Chavez held house meetings every evening, usually two per night, building to a general meeting two weeks later. He was pleased with the turnout and the enthusiasm, but frustrated when the county clerk refused to deputize him to enroll new voters, on the grounds he had not lived there long enough. Ross told Chavez to try harder: “By going from door-to-door
yourself you will be able to do an awful lot of organizing and selling people on the C.S.O—people that you will probably never meet otherwise.”
By September, the Madera CSO had registered five hundred new voters and adopted a constitution. Chavez was enthusiastic. “It looks like the ‘Giant’ is wakening up more so every day, after that long long sleep,” he wrote Ross. “The Politicians are getting interested in the Mexican vote.”
Just before Thanksgiving, he moved on to Bakersfield, where three weeks of house meetings drew enthusiastic crowds despite competition from holiday gatherings (“It’s getting harder for me to make sense when I speak of citizenship and voting and they speak of tamales and buñuelos
and tequila,” Chavez wrote Ross). The weekly CSO meetings attracted 100 people. More than 250 enrolled in citizenship classes. Chavez ran headlong into a new problem in Bakersfield—red-baiting. His initial meeting with county clerk Vera Gibson had appeared to go smoothly, and she agreed to certify ten deputy registrars. Chavez organized his team and was ready to go, but Gibson kept stalling. After a month, Ross urged Chavez to take dramatic action. Another month went by. “Break the thing wide open in the newspaper like you did in San Jose,” Ross admonished
Chavez, urging him to take supporters to a board of supervisors meeting to protest. Instead, Chavez enlisted the help of religious leaders. When Gibson told the local priest she had no intention of certifying registrars for the subversive group, Chavez demanded to know
the source of her allegations and insisted she call the attorney general’s office in Washington immediately to clear the CSO’s name and reputation. After three months of fighting, he got his deputy registrars.