Authors: Miriam Pawel
Chavez tried to price the trees attractively and the CSO took out ads to spread the word in the Mexican American community. But they had started late and faced competition all over town. They sold 480 of the 900 trees. The CSO ended up $280 in the red. The day after Christmas, Chavez cleaned the lot and discontinued the power. In a borrowed pickup truck, Lenny and his dad helped haul hundreds of trees to the dump.
Not even Chavez’s relentless drive could change the bottom line from red to black. But the failure was not for lack of trying.
I told her I thought that I couldn’t spend my life doing anything more worthwhile than working with poor people . . . People would come first. There wouldn’t be any days off.
Chavez returned in early 1957 to the Imperial Valley city of Brawley, where he had graduated from junior high, to rebuild another CSO chapter. The office was filthy, and the membership roster slim. Fred Ross bought detergent, and Chavez and a visiting minister scrubbed the office floor. Chavez held house meetings until he was confident a general meeting would attract a decent turnout.
When the crowd was settled, Chavez played a game to jump-start a membership drive. He asked the audience to select four captains and stationed each one in a corner of the room. Chavez directed them to take turns picking team members, like a playground game, until everyone was standing in one corner or another. Each captain handed out membership books to their team, and each member pledged to fill a book.
The meeting lasted till almost 11:00 p.m. Over coffee afterward, the Rev. Gabino Rendon asked whether the process could not have been done more efficiently. “Sure, if we did it all,” Chavez replied. “But then the people wouldn’t learn anything. This way it takes longer, but the people do it themselves
and learn. Next time, they’ll be better at it.”
In the five years since he had met Ross, Chavez had grown in confidence and in technique. Where Ross did the same things over and over, Chavez experimented. His success attracted attention. In schooling others, Chavez began to articulate tactics he had divined by instinct or developed through trial and error. He became the mentor for others that Ross had been for him, and attracted followers of his own.
Rendon was among a group that became Chavez’s first disciples. The California Migrant Ministry, a Protestant organization funded by the National Council of Churches, placed ministers and lay people in rural communities. The staff had served in traditional roles—delivering books and clothes to migrant camps, conducting Bible classes, and offering spiritual counseling. The Migrant Ministry director wanted to deepen their connection to the community, and Saul Alinsky arranged to send each staff member to train with Chavez and Ross for six to eight weeks. For Chavez, the mentorship marked the start of his relationship with an institution that would prove crucial to his future organizing. For the trainees, the encounter proved revolutionary.
“All my previous experience had been in starting from the top,”
Louise Bashford wrote after her apprenticeship. In the CSO approach, “always there was consideration of what the people themselves saw as needs.” She observed how the CSO built leadership. She grew outraged as she gained insight into the lives of people she tried to serve: “The issue of civil rights takes on a new meaning when it is Mrs. Figueroa’s home which the police break into without a warrant, when Mr. Botello gets no mail delivery because Kingman Street is unpaved . . . when twenty teenagers are picked up in a narcotics round-up and during the week in which they are held not one of the parents visits or knows that he can visit.”
The trainees became attached to Chavez. He was as patient in answering their questions as he was with the CSO members who sought his help. The Migrant Ministry staff helped with typing and chores and tagged along as Chavez made his daily rounds. He offered Spanish lessons over breakfast, patiently explained what he did throughout the day, and finished late at night with a rehash of the day’s events over coffee and
, Mexican pastries.
The ministry staff came away overwhelmed by Chavez’s dedication and gentle manner. “He always had plenty of time
for each individual,” wrote Paul Cassen after his six-week stint. “He pursued every lead that was open to him.” Chavez helped the epileptic vet who needed treatment, the man who wanted to bring his wife from Mexico, and the undocumented immigrant trying to legalize his status. A woman applying for citizenship brought in two sugar sacks full of papers and dumped them on the table. Chavez patiently sorted through the documents to find those that would establish her legal residency. The only time Cassen saw Chavez irritated was when a government agency stonewalled him.
“No one was told
his situation was hopeless,” noted Harold Lundgren, another Migrant Ministry worker. “No one turned away with that depressing statement, ‘We can’t help you.’ Everyone was made to feel that
problem was very important, and without exception there was the note of optimistic confidence that something could be done.”
One of the most important qualities that Chavez and Ross looked for in recruits, the trainees noted, was single-minded commitment. Divided loyalties of any sort were denounced as a distraction that drew people away from full participation in the CSO. Chavez set the standard that everyone else tried to emulate.
“How well I recall one night,
after a very long and strenuous chapter meeting, Cesar Chavez accompanied Mr. Ross and myself to the motel where we were staying,” wrote the Rev. Gradus Alberts. “In spite of the fact that Cesar had had only three hours of sleep the night before, he stayed until 2 o’clock a.m. searching his own mind for answers to knotty problems existing within the chapters. I was deeply impressed by his insight into each problem . . . At 2 o’clock we said goodbye and Fred Ross and I watched him vanish into the night, for another hour’s drive so that he might be on hand for an early morning appointment.”
In his 1957 datebook, Chavez noted his mileage at the top of every day, keeping a cumulative total. On July 28, he hit the fifty-thousand-mile mark.
He saw little of his wife and five young children, though he made it home to San Jose most weekends. When Helen went into labor with their sixth child, Cesar was at the national CSO convention in Fresno; his brother Lenny drove her to the hospital. In later years, to justify his lack of attention to his family, Chavez often told a story about a decision he made during this period. The details changed with each retelling, and the fuzziness of time and place suggested the tale was more apocryphal than factual. But the message was consistent, clear, and heartfelt: Chavez had been working hard for the CSO, without a day off, and planned to finally spend a Sunday relaxing on a family picnic. Just as they were about to leave, someone showed up asking for help. Sometimes when he told the story, a man had been beaten up by the police and thrown in jail. In some versions, Chavez went on the picnic anyway, felt miserable, and ruined the day for everyone else; in other versions, he cancelled the outing because he could not turn away people in need. The ending was always the same: he told Helen he felt torn and needed to make a clear choice between his work and his family. He had to either be of service to people, or be a servant. He chose to be a servant, and from then on, he was happy.
“I told her I thought that I couldn’t spend my life doing anything more worthwhile than working with poor people,” he recalled. “Once I made the decision, I didn’t have any more problems. Because I wasn’t torn . . . People would come first.
There wouldn’t be any days off.”
The Migrant Ministry trainees were not the only ones won over by Chavez’s commitment and his quiet, unassuming style; he also was building a loyal following among CSO members across the state. People trusted Chavez. Whether he hung out in a San Jose barbershop or a Bakersfield church, his informal, conversational style put listeners at ease. His understanding of people’s problems resonated, his familiarity with political power impressed, and his confidence in poor people’s potential to affect change left them inspired. Gilbert Padilla, working in a Hanford dry cleaner, switched his allegiance from the Junior Chamber of Commerce to the CSO, captivated by Chavez’s sense of outrage at the prejudice against Mexican Americans and his certainty that together they could fight back. Juan Govea, who had come to California as a bracero and worked for the Santa Fe Railroad packing ice, turned his Bakersfield house into an unofficial CSO office and stayed up late night after night, translating the driver’s license manual into Spanish.
To the Ross house meeting strategy, Chavez added a twist, which he called the problem clinic. Whenever he was in one place long enough, he established an office where people could come to him for help. Each time a grateful person offered thanks or payment, Chavez asked instead: Help organize the CSO chapter. Hold a house meeting. Tell your friends. Become a member. Volunteer at the new office.
Chavez put all volunteers to work. Some typed letters, some manned the phones, some cut stencils, others drove sick people to the doctor. They found meaning in the work, and they, too, became CSO champions. The volunteer model evolved into a key element of Chavez’s repertoire, a tactic for drawing supporters close. He was so intent on keeping them involved that if he ran out of things to do, he made them up. He told another (perhaps apocryphal) story to make the point: On a very slow day, he told volunteers he needed them to cut up boxes of old papers into small squares to make raffle tickets. They obliged. Once they left, he tossed the boxes of cut-up paper.
As he quietly assumed more of a leadership role, Chavez began to chafe at the limits of his position as a staff organizer. He was on the payroll of Alinsky’s IAF but worked for the CSO officers elected by each chapter’s members. He had to adjust to their weaknesses, compensate for their failings, and follow their priorities. The latter proved most difficult.
The battle in San Jose underscored a philosophical issue that troubled Chavez: as the CSO achieved success and grew in popularity, its members became more middle-class, and their focus shifted away from the poor. In San Jose, as in many chapters, older members who had grown up with the CSO and shared a commitment to its original ideals found themselves pitted against newer, more self-interested recruits. In 1957, Chavez had to watch, powerless, as the split threatened to undermine all the hard work he had done during his yearlong stay in San Jose. As a result of his dogged fund-raising, the chapter had begun the year with enough money to hire an organizer for at least six months. But at two successive meetings, each time the motion to hire an organizer came up for a vote, opponents forced it to be tabled. They pushed through other expenditures that Chavez deemed low priorities, such as $250 to purchase two typewriters. “At this rate,” Chavez wrote Ross in mid-March, “the San Jose group will be flat broke
in the next six months.”
Ross asked the San Jose chapter to transfer $1,000 to the national CSO to hire an organizer. That, too, was rejected. “This damn issue
has created more dissension than I don’t know what,” Chavez wrote. After all his efforts, the money dissipated.
Chavez faced a dilemma. He was empowering people, and they chose to exercise that power toward goals he did not share. He disapproved, but he could not control. A decade later he would vividly describe his frustration, emotion that profoundly influenced his future endeavors: “You don’t become an officer, you do all the work, you become their servant, you don’t even have a vote . . . You build it, and you stand aside here, and then they have the votes, they destroy it, they send everything to hell. And you’re standing over here just, you know, really mad at them, mad at the world,
because you put all this goddamn work into building something, and then they get into fights among themselves and destroy things.”
Just five years after the CSO had been his lifeline out of Sal Si Puedes, he began to outgrow the organization. A critical tone entered Chavez’s reports. He expressed increasing unhappiness about the dominance of what Father McDonnell called “fur coat Mexicans.” After the 1957 national CSO convention at the upscale Hacienda Motel in Fresno, Chavez voiced sharp disapproval: “At this rate in another two or three years the plain common ordinary member will not be able to attend this gathering. Imagine a couple having to pay $14 for the registration and banquet. At this rate it will soon become a convention for the privilege[d] few.”
Ross shared Chavez’s disdain for the influx of more highly educated CSO members. The Migrant Ministry trainees were struck by the sentiment, and most noted in their reports that Chavez and Ross were convinced that higher education was a hindrance to developing leaders. The leadership of the Fresno chapter had become too “respectable,” Ross said. CSO leaders in Oakland were better educated, and as a consequence less interested in “bread and butter issues.” In general, Ross explained, what had at first appeared to be a negative—a lack of education—turned out to be a positive attribute: “In a significant sense these people were not corrupted by a formal educational institution . . . They were not afraid of adventurous thinking,
including the prospects of failures.”
Education became a code word for middle-class values and lack of concern for the poor. Middle-class, once a lifestyle Chavez aspired to have his children reach, now became a dirty word. He became more militant in his commitment to sacrifice.