Authors: Miriam Pawel
Strangers could easily underestimate Chavez. He was short, unremarkable in appearance, and unassuming in his manner. He was not an articulate speaker and often said “golly” to fill in space. But he had a way of getting people hooked. Everywhere he went, he impressed people with the single-minded intensity and focus that had struck Ross in their initial meeting. His empathy and compassion for those in need were equally evident. He was good at reading people. His deep, dark, expressive eyes focused intently on his listener. Then came a flash of gold when his lips parted into a warm smile and revealed the cap on his front tooth.
Wherever Chavez lived, work came first. At first he was on the road, away from home for days or weeks. Then came frequent moves. He uprooted his family from San Jose to Madera in July 1954, then to Bakersfield in November, to Hanford in April 1955, and in September back to San Jose. Linda, the third-oldest and still a toddler, thought of Ross
as the tall man who came to take her dad away.
Chavez’s dedication, and results, attracted attention from Alinsky. He bumped up his young organizer’s salary from $3,600 to $4,000 a year—only to find that Chavez objected. Alinsky was amused, and somewhat appalled, by Chavez’s protestations. “May I say that in the future there will be adjustments and that you most emphatically are not being overpaid,” Alinsky wrote Chavez. “If you want to have an argument with me on the basis of your convictions in this matter I suggest that you have a talk with your wife first . . . Also a point of personal curiosity. I note that there is absolutely nothing charged for meals . . . were you on a diet,
or did you carry a sandwich from home?”
Chavez’s tendency to sacrifice did not perturb Ross. He wrote about a conversation with Chavez after he had helped a family get assistance from a government agency. The successful intervention, Chavez told his mentor, “made me feel like God,
almost.” The grateful family offered to pay for the help, but Chavez would not accept. “Might take a little bit of that God-feeling I’ve got away from me,” he explained to Ross. Ross smiled. “What else is there?” he told Chavez. “You’re an organizer.”
Ross understood that Chavez thrived on the power to help people and the way that made him feel. He did not want to be poor, but he did not want to feel he was profiting from doing good. He had grown up with the idea that helping people was its own reward. He was Juana Chavez’s son.
We know we can’t carry both programs and fundraising. We also know that if the organization fails in programs, we will not have people around for the fundraising . . . It’s a big problem, and although we need both, we have to decide on one.
Saul Alinsky, the brilliant, acerbic founder of the discipline of community organizing, divided the task of building a successful entity into two phases: getting organized, and staying organized. From his Chicago base and during occasional visits to a second home in the Carmel Valley, Alinsky assessed the progress of the CSO, which depended almost entirely on financial support from his Industrial Areas Foundation. By the end of 1955, he decided the time had come to shift to phase two.
Alinsky saw a clear pattern: whenever Ross or Chavez left an area, the local chapter soon deflated. The two men spent their time riding the circuit and rebuilding chapters, only to have them fall apart again once they moved on. Alinsky, the witty and erudite son of Russian Jewish immigrants, requested time to address the annual convention of the group that had established itself in just a few years as the preeminent grassroots organization for Mexican Americans.
At first, Alinsky told the July 1955 CSO convention, the novelty of a new endeavor attracts people who enthusiastically volunteer time and effort. If the organization succeeds, after a while its mandate broadens. Administrative work multiplies with every success. Volunteers alone can’t keep the organization running smoothly. If programs are run inefficiently, people lose interest. Eventually, the organization disintegrates. Alinsky described a scenario
he had seen many times, and one that Chavez, in not too many years, would grapple with firsthand.
The CSO chapters had undertaken so many activities that they could no longer succeed without full-time staff, Alinsky said. The Industrial Areas Foundation would therefore shift its support, in the hope of forcing a long-range plan that would make the CSO financially stable. His organizers—Ross and Chavez—would no longer start new chapters. Their task was to unite the more than twenty existing chapters into one self-supporting national organization.
Chavez had shown he could land almost anywhere and make things happen. Now he needed to master the job of keeping chapters organized. For once, Ross was little help. As Alinsky observed,
stabilizing an organization had never been Ross’s forte.
In late 1955, Chavez moved back to San Jose, the city he considered the closest thing to home. The chapter he had helped build three years earlier had all but collapsed. Dues-paying membership had plummeted from about four hundred to eighty-seven. Meetings that once filled the school auditorium now drew so few members that they all sat up on the stage. Chavez spent the next year using his skills as an organizer not to help people solve problems but to try to rebuild the group on a secure financial foundation. His mandate was to raise enough money so that San Jose could hire a full-time organizer and Chavez could move on, confident the chapter would not fall apart again.
He worked twelve to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, almost never taking a day off. He filled close to five hundred pages, largely handwritten, reporting his activities to Ross and Alinsky. Often he dictated reports to Helen, whose neat handwriting was far easier to read than Cesar’s scrawl. He detailed failures as well as successes in an open and even-handed tone. To his basic tenet—work as hard as possible—Chavez added a second guiding principle: never give up. He would not admit failure, pushing long past the point where almost anyone else would have thrown up their hands in defeat.
With his single-minded focus, Chavez insisted that he must concentrate only on fund-raising, even at the risk of letting popular CSO services like English and citizenship classes slide. “We know we can’t carry both programs and fundraising,” Chavez told the local CSO president. “We also know that if the organization fails in programs, we will not have people around for the fundraising . . . It’s a big problem,
and although we need both, we have to decide on one.” Throughout his career, this would be Chavez’s mantra in critical times: to succeed, he must focus on one thing only.
Over the course of the year, Chavez opened a rummage store, staged a three-day carnival, and sold Christmas trees. Each showcased his problem-solving skills and indefatigable energy, but also their limitations.
When the CSO board endorsed the idea of a rummage store, Chavez scouted a storefront and bargained about the lease. He painted signs to hang in the windows. He solicited donations and then borrowed a truck to pick up furniture. He browsed secondhand stores to figure out prices and then tagged the merchandise. He recruited volunteers to work in the store, which they called “Macy’s,” and set up a schedule to cover the shifts. Each morning Chavez picked up the volunteers and delivered them to the store. He drove them home at the end of their shift. When his own car broke down, a frequent occurrence, he borrowed wheels from his younger brother Lenny, who was following brother Richard into the carpentry trade.
Chavez tended to every detail. Though one of his great gifts was enlisting support, he delegated little, not trusting others to get the work done. Week after week, he recorded instances when committee chairs and board members let him down. Chavez turned instead to his family, who proved reliable and loyal. They never refused his appeals for help.
Chavez’s idea for a three-day fair plunged him into new territory as he searched for snow cone machines and scouted out-of-season baby ducks. Throughout, he relied on the same small band of allies. His brother Lenny and Herman Gallegos accompanied Chavez on a day trip to San Francisco to visit carnival supply stores and investigate how much Fun Land charged for games. When they needed wood to build booths for the fair, Father McDonnell located a house that the owner wanted to tear down. Chavez bought the structure for $80, his brothers and father helped dismantle it, and they hauled the wood to the fairgrounds in a rented trailer.
Worried about how to attract an audience, Chavez came up with a novel scheme: he sold tickets for the kiddie rides to merchants, who handed them out to loyal customers. In a month, he had sold nine thousand tickets
at 3¢ apiece. At a packing shed, he noticed discarded potato sacks and inquired whether he could buy the burlap bags, which the fair committee needed to make curtains for the booths. The foreman’s parents had legalized their status with the help of the CSO. He told Chavez to take whatever he wanted. He left with two hundred bags, saving $30.
While volunteers dyed the burlap sacks four colors and sewed them into curtains, Cesar scavenged for parakeets, goldfish, and cotton candy machines. The final weekend of preparation, Helen made sandwiches and brought them to the site of the fairgrounds to feed the volunteers; Cesar feared that if the men went home for lunch, they would not return. Chavez ordered popcorn, candy apples, and beer. He played one distributor against another, threatening not to sell Lucky Lager until the brewer agreed to donate ten cases. Fred Ross came to help and located the elusive baby ducks. Ross went to pick up goldfish and then helped decorate the booths. On the day the fair opened, Friday, August 10, 1956, Ross “picked up ducks
at post office, fed them and bedded them down,” he recorded in his journal. Then he picked up Helen and the kids and took them to Juana Chavez’s house, where they prepared food to sell that afternoon at the fair.
The free tickets proved such an attraction that dozens of kids showed up at 9:00 a.m., four hours before opening time. The food was not ready in time, inexperienced volunteers running the game booths gave away more money than they took in, and in the evening the fuses blew every time the lights went on. The highlight was the Panda Bear Pitch, which netted $60. Chavez called a huddle to debrief as soon as the gates closed. Ross was dispatched to buy more lightbulbs, and a volunteer went home to research the wiring. After a couple hours of sleep, Chavez was back early Saturday to help fix the lights with heavier-gauge wire.
By Sunday, they had worked out the kinks. The crowds swelled, the food was ready, and the fair grossed twice as much as the day before. Sunday night Chavez stood guard alone over the equipment. Father McDonnell showed up at 1:00 a.m. and kept him company for several hours.
When Chavez sat down with the treasurer a few days later to go through the bills and receipts, he checked and rechecked the math in disbelief. The costs totaled $2,400, the gross about $3,000. All that work for $600.
A Christmas tree sale offered the last chance to end 1956 with a sizable surplus. As soon as the idea surfaced, Chavez scoured the neighborhood for a suitable lot. The best spots had been reserved months earlier. On Thanksgiving afternoon, he rented a lot several blocks from Sal Si Puedes, for $25. The next day he went to Sears, rented a power posthole digger, and bought timber and lights. He worked all weekend to set up and wire the lot.
The best trees were also spoken for early, Chavez discovered. He had written away for lists of tree dealers from the Chambers of Commerce in Oregon and Washington and made more than a dozen calls before he found a dealer who still had trees at a reasonable price. The CSO board decided not to risk a $1,000 investment on a phone conversation; they dispatched Chavez to Oregon to check out the trees in person.
He left the next afternoon, driving straight through the night by himself to Eugene, almost six hundred miles. Chavez called eleven dealers. None had any trees left. He drove another hundred miles to Portland to visit the dealer who had made the original offer; as soon as Chavez voiced approval, the dealer raised the price. He spent the next day working the phones again. Finally he found Douglas firs for 65¢ apiece.
Now he had another problem—how to transport nine hundred trees to San Jose. On Saturday morning, December 1, Chavez hung out at a local truck stop until he found a driver heading to the Ford plant outside San Jose with an empty truck. The driver agreed to transport the trees for $150, no loading included. At 1:00 a.m. Sunday, Chavez began loading trees on the truck. He finished four hours later. He drove back through icy weather, arriving home at 2:30 on Monday morning.
At daylight, he rushed to the lot. No one had finished the work in his absence. He rigged a temporary extension cord from a neighbor’s house to set up electrical poles and string lights. When the trees arrived, he unloaded them and stayed on the lot to protect the merchandise, sleeping in his car for three nights until the CSO president’s mother-in-law lent him a trailer.
McDonnell blessed the trees, and Chavez gave him two for the church. Ross came and offered pointers about display. By Friday evening, the trees were arranged in size order, the power hooked up, and the city inspection passed. Chavez sold his first tree for $3.
“There isn’t much more I can say about the Christmas tree sale
except that most of the work is routine, by this I mean that it was a 24 hour operation from Dec 3 to 24,” Chavez reported at the end of the month. “In the evenings after work one or two members would come over and help for a couple of hours, which would give me time to go get something to eat.”