Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, Bloomsbury Press, 2014, 548 pp., $35.00.
Cesar Chavez is the closest thing Hispanics have to Martin Luther King. There are countless streets, schools, and student centers named after him, and his birthday is a state holiday in California, Texas, and Colorado. In 1994, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2003 the Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor. The Navy named a cargo ship for him. Barack Obama shamelessly stole his slogan Si, se puede “Yes, we can” to use as a campaign slogan, and added the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument to the national park system in 2012.
Official adulation can only grow, as the number of Hispanics grows. All that’s left to do is declare a national holiday on the great man’s birthday, and it’s hard to imagine anything that could stop that–except perhaps this new biography by Miriam Pawel.
Miss Pawel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and editor, is the ideal biographer. She has researched her subject exhaustively. She writes well. She presents her findings objectively and does not pass judgment–so I will: Anyone who reads this book can only conclude that Cesar Chavez was a deceitful, foul-mouthed, philandering, sociopathic egomaniac who pretended to be a saint. And, yes, he had an unusual capacity to attract and inspire people, and worked very hard to start a farm workers union. Only a unique combination of circumstances could have made a hero out of this gifted but odious man: America’s compulsion to throw itself at the feet of non-white figureheads and the relentless liberalism of the 1960, ’70s, and ’80s.
On both sides of his family, Chavez was descended from what would today be called illegal immigrants. His grandparents on his father’s side crossed the border from Mexico in 1898 and settled in Arizona. His mother was brought over as a six-month old in 1892.
Chavez was born in 1927 and grew up in Yuma, Arizona, on land that belonged to his grandfather, who was a moderately successful businessman. The Chavezes were not wealthy, but they kept a cow and a horse, and had so many chickens they gave away eggs. Cesar grew up with a younger brother, Richard, who would be a close collaborator his whole life.
Chavez’s father, Librado, piddled away the family businesses and fell behind on property taxes. In 1930, the state of Arizona gave him seven years to pay up. Nine years later, when Chavez was 12, the taxes were still in arrears, and the state auctioned the property. The buyer kindly let the family stay in the house for several months until the end of the school year. Later, when Chavez was fashioning himself as a doughty Latino fighting for justice, he claimed that arrogant Anglos had cheated his father and driven him off his land.
The family moved to California, but Librado was lazy, and Cesar’s parents scraped by as farm hands. Miss Pawel writes that at that time workers had to stoop to use an 18-inch hoe called el cortito. Foremen looked down the lines of workers, and if anyone stood up to rest his back he was immediately ordered back to work. There were no privies; women used their skirts to protect each other’s privacy.
Cesar was a mediocre student, and in 1942 he graduated from junior high and went to work in the fields. Miss Pawel says that he had attended about a dozen schools, but later claimed to have attended 57. In 1946, Chavez joined the Navy and spent two years repairing ships that had been damaged during the war. Later, he claimed to have joined in 1944 so he could tell people he had gone to war.
In 1948, at age 21, he was back in the fields with his brother Richard. That year, he married his five-months-pregnant girlfriend, Helen. He and Richard later got jobs as stock handlers in a lumber yard, which was a step up from farm work. By 1953, Chavez was living in a small, wood-frame house in a poor, Hispanic ghetto in San Jose, California. He was 26 years old and had five small children.
In 1952, Chavez met a man who changed his life, a white community organizer named Fred Ross. Ross, who was funded and supported by the famous Saul Alinsky, had started something called the Community Service Organization (CSO), based in Los Angeles. Its purpose was to increase the power of poor Hispanics, mainly by registering them to vote.
Ross started a CSO branch in San Jose, where he set up a series of “house meetings,” in which he persuaded someone to invite all his friends for an organizing session. Cesar and Richard were skeptical of any gringo who claimed to want to help Mexicans, but Cesar agreed to host a meeting. Ross was impressed by Cesar’s intensity and apparent drive, and Cesar was immediately hooked on organizing.
Later, Chavez would claim he was recruited right out of the fields to become an organizer. He kept his job with the lumber company, but spent nights and weekends registering Hispanic voters. Ross introduced him to activist Catholic priests–Anglos who explained to him the importance of unionizing farm workers, and persuaded him that the church could be an important ally. Chavez had never been an active Catholic, but for the rest of his career he used churchmen, both Catholic and Protestant, very effectively to promote his causes.
Chavez was laid off from the lumberyard and collected unemployment while he worked full-time for the CSO. Ross eventually got money from Alinsky to pay Chavez a small salary to run a “problem clinic,” where he registered Hispanics to vote, fought deportation orders, filled out immigration forms, and tracked down citizenship papers. He started setting up new CSO chapters, and wherever he went he took letters of introduction to local priests.
Chavez was a short man, physically unimpressive, and did not speak well either in English or Spanish, but he had a single-minded intensity that impressed people. Ross–who referred to Mexico as his “spiritual home”–realized he had a star pupil, and tutored him on all aspects of community organizing. Chavez inspired people with his sacrifice and dedication, and began to attract volunteers. He always had work for them, even if he had to make it up.
Chavez and the CSO regarded illegal immigrants with disdain, and did not complain when Operation Wetback rounded up and deported hundreds of thousands of Mexicans in 1954. The bracero program, which brought in immigrants at harvest time, was still operating, but growers were supposed to hire braceros only if no Americans were available. Many growers preferred to hire docile Mexicans over legal residents, and one of Chavez’s early farm jobs was to call in federal agents to chase away the braceros.
In 1959, Chavez become a national director for the CSO, and continued to run problem clinics. About that time he met Dolores Huerta, his most famous sidekick, who stuck with him to the end, and continues to promote him as a saint. She was the one exception to his rule that women are good only for secretarial and drudge work. As he explained, women were “made for this kind . . . [of] tedious work.”
In 1962, after 10 years, Chavez left the CSO. Miss Pawel writes that years later, he claimed he left because the CSO ignored farm workers. In fact, the CSO board had just voted to make organizing farm workers one of its priorities.
Miss Pawel explains the real reasons Chavez left the CSO. One was a personality kink he appears to have had all his life: a contempt for the middle class and for poor Hispanics who wanted to join it. In his CSO work, he was disgusted by members who got what they wanted–be it citizenship, better wages, or a pension–and then dropped out of the organization. He claimed to despise materialism–he seems to have had no desire for personal wealth–and this was part of his appeal. Yet, in a riddle that Miss Pawel does not explain, he saw no irony in working endless hours to advance the most materialistic concerns: higher wages and better working conditions. Later, he would say repeatedly that he wanted to run a movement, not a union, and though he was never sure just what that movement would be, in his mind it always had strong elements of sacrifice and self-denial.
The other reason is that Chavez was fascinated by power and wanted to be the boss. He read Machiavelli, and studied how Hitler and Mao had used power. He admired Gandhi’s ability to exercise non-political power. “Everything you deal with in the movement is about power,” he once explained.
It was at this point, when Chavez left the CSO, that he accomplished something genuinely remarkable. Essentially single-handedly, he built a union for people who had never had one. Others were doing the same thing, but he achieved a lot more with a lot less.
In 1962, Chavez left the CSO and moved to Delano, California. He was 35 years old, had eight children, no job, and $1,200 in savings. However, he knew he would not starve, since two of his wife’s sisters lived in Delano, as did his brother Richard, who was a successful carpenter. He filed for unemployment and made sure he never got a job offer.
At that time, the AFL-CIO was also trying to start a farm union, and had set up the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) as a first step. Chavez was afraid to compete openly with AWOC, so he travelled the San Joaquin Valley, claiming to be taking a census of farm workers. Often, when he told people he was not being paid, they gave him food and gas money. Ross also sent money, and he got support from a protestant organization called the California Migrant Ministry. Its head, Chris Hartmire, gave Chavez crucial early support and stuck by him for many years.
In 1962, Chavez held the first convention of what he called the Farm Workers Association, later the United Farm Workers Association (UFW). This was when he introduced the union symbol: a black Aztec eagle on a red and white background. Chavez chose that color scheme because he admired the visual impact of the Nazi swastika.
The first meeting attracted about 150 workers, who agreed to pay $3.50 a month in dues. In return, they got small life insurance policies, and loans from a simple credit union for which Richard Chavez raised capital by mortgaging his house.
In the press release announcing the union, Chavez shaded the truth, as usual, claiming that he supported his family by working in the fields from 6 am to 2 pm. “The rest of the day and half the night Cesar devotes to organizing.” In fact, he rarely did farm work, the union had voted him a modest salary, and he had plans for other income.
Miss Pawel points out that by the 1960s, farm workers had already attracted national attention. Many people watched Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 television program, Harvest of Shame, and exploitation of field hands was being compared to the oppression of blacks. Congress responded by killing the bracero program in 1964; this reduced the labor supply and put upward pressure on wages.
In April 1965, Chavez was still peddling life insurance and running a “problem clinic” when rival AWOC called a strike that forced him to follow suit. AWOC, whose members were almost all Filipinos, was striking table-grape growers, and UFW workers went on strike in sympathy. Chavez played hard ball from the start. Union members set up picket lines in the fields and shouted abuse at strike breakers. They picketed the houses of strikebreakers.
Hartmire’s Migrant Ministry put its staff of 12 to work for the strike, and its ministers wrote Chavez’s speeches and pamphlets. Three months into the strike, the AFL-CIO decided to give the UFW $5,000 a month as long as the strike lasted, and Walter Reuther brought the press corps to Delano to publicize the strike. A talented playwright named Luis Valdez started Teatro Campesino (Peasant Theater), which performed pro-union skits on a flat-bed truck that could be driven into the fields. Senator Robert Kennedy toured the fields with Chavez.
Farm workers had become the new liberal pets, and Chavez began to attract idealistic young whites. As the strike wore on, workers stopped picketing and went on to other jobs, so hippies from Berkeley took their place. A white volunteer edited the AFW newspaper. Chavez liked to claim that “none of our staff is salaried but we provide a floor to sleep on and three meals a day,” even though he and a number of key personnel got modest salaries.
The growers–second- and third-generation Italian, Sicilian, and Slav immigrants rather than haughty “Anglo” exploiters–found replacement workers, and managed to keep their businesses going. Chavez needed new tactics to break the growers, and decided to send volunteers to cities all over the country to persuade consumers to boycott California grapes. He got Hispanics who worked for the growers to smuggle out company strategy. He also had volunteers follow the trucks from the farms, so they could set up pickets to prevent unloading the grapes. Women who packed the grapes pricked them with needles so they would rot before they got to market.
Chavez preened himself on Gandhi-like civil disobedience, but looked the other way while his cousin Manual Chavez organized teams to burn down grape storage sheds, destroy irrigation pumps, and hack down mature vines. They smashed the refrigeration units on the train cars that kept grapes cool on their way to market. Publicly, Chavez condemned violence, but years later, he said of his cousin Manual: “He’s done all the dirty work for the union. There’s a lot of fucking dirty work, and he did it all.”
During the strike, Chavez imitated the black civil rights movement by staging a march. He led followers the 245 miles from Delano to the state capitol in Sacramento, carrying images of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, Mexico’s patron saint. Catholic priests blessed the marchers, and the media obliged with sympathetic coverage.
Chavez was already showing his colors. The AFW had officially become an AFL-CIO union by merging–theoretically as equals–with the larger AWOC, but Chavez kept control and shouldered out the Filipinos. He also set up non-profits to provide services for poor workers, but in a pattern that Miss Pawel says persisted throughout his career, he illegally diverted money from non-profits to the union. He also began to kick out rivals for center stage. In 1967, Teatro Campesino was gaining national attention, and its leader, Luis Valdes, had ideas of his own, so the troupe had to go.
In 1968, Chavez tried a new tactic: a hunger strike. A grower had finally got enough evidence of union violence to get a contempt citation against Chavez, and he began to fast several weeks before he had to appear in court. He claimed it was a fast against violence, an act of prayer, an expression of love. The site of the fast became a carnival, and sprouted an impromptu village of 200 tents. Every day there was singing, every evening there was mass. Admirers waited hours for an audience with Chavez, lying in bed in his pajamas, with a rosary and a mezuzah strung up over his head. It was all great propaganda.
Chavez was still fasting when he showed up in court, leaning for support on his lawyer, and pretended to stumble as he went by the television cameras. Hundreds of farm workers crammed into the courthouse; the judge put off the hearing. On the 25th day of the fast, Robert Kennedy came as the guest of honor to help break the fast–another huge carnival and media event. The UFW put up a 30-foot cross to memorialize Chavez’s sacrifice, and even Dolores Huerta admitted that “a lot of people thought Cesar was trying to play God.”
Kennedy was assassinated only a few days later, and an increasingly high-profile Chavez flew to New York to be one of the pallbearers. National publications wrote fawning stories. Peter Matthiessen wrote an adoring, two-part profile of Chavez in the New Yorker in 1969 that gave the UFW enormous credibility–and donated his $1,500 fee to one of Chavez’s organizations.
National stature meant a more effective boycott. Priests prayed over grapes in supermarket aisles, volunteers held candle light vigils outside the homes of food company executives, and picketers stalled cars to block supermarket parking lots. Boycott volunteers filled grocery carts to the brim, went to the checkout, and asked if the store sold grapes. When cashiers said yes, they walked out in protest. College students voted to ban grapes from dining halls, as Chavez traveled the country raising money.
The growers buckled. Catholic bishops posed as arbitrators between growers and the UFW, but the growers rightly doubted their neutrality. In one high-profile case when workers took a vote on whether to join the UFW or a Teamster farm union, Monsignor George Higgins stepped in to count the ballots. Later he admitted he deliberately miscounted to give the UFW a victory.
Soon, the UFW had tens of thousands of members and hundreds of contracts, but union operations were in shambles. No one knew how many members there were, whose dues were up to date, or how many hours they had worked. Chavez made rules that frustrated everyone. Members had to pay dues year-round, whether they were working or not, so when the growing season came around, they might be several hundred dollars in arrears. The union would not send them on jobs, and frustrated growers sometimes leant them money for dues. The UFW also gave job preference according to seniority within the union. This meant that if a husband and wife joined at different times they might not be able to work together. It also meant that people who had worked at the same farm year after year might not be able to go back because they lacked UFW seniority.
Chavez had no time for workers who complained. He never cared about the details of running a union, and refused to delegate power to anyone who did. But he still attracted white volunteers. The early ones had come because they believed in farm worker rights. Now, they came because they thought he was a hero, and were even less likely to question him or talk back.
Chavez adopted a new image. He had always been a smoking, drinking, meat-eating Mexican, but now he lived on carrot juice and vegetables. He complained of chronic back pain, which gave him an excuse not to see people. He started giving interviews from his bed, as he had during his fast. He wanted everyone to know that he was working through his pain and doing penance for the good of mankind. The Filipinos were not fooled. They complained that they were second-class citizens in a Mexican-dominated union, and told him he should stop trying to be a saint and run the union.
In 1970, a rich Hollywood movie producer who had come under Chavez’s spell bought a retreat for him: a remote, abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium in the hills of Kern County. It was an hour away from union headquarters in Delano, and even farther from the action in the fields. His advisors thought the union should stay close to the workers, but Chavez wanted to get away from them. He preached communal living, and insisted that his staff live there with their families. At its height, 150 people were living at the compound Chavez named La Paz.
The union continued to be badly run, but Chavez dismissed complaints, claiming they were grower propaganda. Idealistic white volunteers tried hard to make the union work, and often saw what was going wrong. Miss Pawel writes that some of them drew up careful plans for how to solve problems, and were invited to La Paz to explain them. Chavez accused them of being traitors and fired them. Some were so shocked they left in tears.
Chavez continued to call strikes and burnish his image. He led groups of celebrities to defy judges’ orders not to interfere with strikebreakers, and went to jail with them, while supporters gathered outside to sing and say mass. Admirers took turns going on 24-hour fasts. His union lost contracts to the Teamsters–and to angry workers who wanted to decertify the union–but his national stature grew.
Chavez would not delegate authority. In 1973, he was opening every single piece of mail that came to La Paz. His brother Richard complained that he had to report to the boss on every spark plug the union bought for a car. Chavez also became more dictatorial than ever, forcing out anyone who disagreed with him. As he explained, “I got to be the fucking king, or I leave.” When the leader of another union criticized UFW tactics, Chavez sent a messaging saying he could “go fuck himself.”
Outside of La Paz, people admired Chavez, sent him money, boycotted grapes, and felt smug about it. In 1974 Chavez got an audience with the Pope, and at the 1976 Democratic national convention he gave the nomination speech for California Governor Jerry Brown (Jimmy Carter won the nomination).
Hispanics now keep this quiet, but Chavez never saw illegal immigrants as anything but scabs, claiming that the CIA was deliberately letting them in to break his strikes. He had volunteers scout the fields and call Border Patrol if they found illegal workers.
In 1974, Chavez’s cousin Manual used union money to bribe Mexican authorities to prevent illegals from crossing into Arizona to break a strike against lemon growers. Manuel also set up a “wet[back] line” of thugs to beat up and rob illegals who got through. The violence was so bad illegals complained to the Border Patrol.
There is no question that Chavez knew about this. He was obsessive about recording conversations–Miss Pawel listened to more than 1,500 hours of tapes–and he talked with Manuel about how to run the wet line. However, when rumors of violence began to seep out–and when Manuel was arrested–Chavez managed to keep his reputation for saintly non-violence.
Farm workers began to attract the attention of the California legislature, and several bills were introduced to establish a legal framework for unionization. In public, Chavez supported legislation, but in private he hated anything that would formalize the relationship between workers and growers and leave no room for his grandstanding. He wanted to be the only reason conditions improved for workers. He tried to load bills up with impossible demands and was mortified when they passed anyway. “Legislation wasn’t what we were after,” he said. “Legislation could screw us.”
In 1977, Chavez started purging people before audiences. He studied the humiliation techniques of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and liked to call targets before a group for scripted accusations: “You’re a fucking agent, and we want you out right now.” For Chavez, there was no such thing as disagreement, mistakes, or incompetence. If anything went wrong, it was always the work of traitors and saboteurs, whom he referred to as “assholes.” Most of the victims were white, but some of Chavez’s Mexican comrades got the same treatment. When others in the organization were shocked at the expulsion of people they thought were loyal supporters, Chavez told them whatever lies he thought they might believe.
Chavez always liked a big celebration on his birthday, March 31, and in 1977, he gave it an official name, “Founder’s Day.” This was based on yet another lie: that he had resigned from the CSO to start a farm union on his birthday. The day became an official union holiday, and staff were to set aside at least one hour on Founder’s Day for religious services and for studying the heroic, early days of the union.
Chavez started using the royal “we.” In his newsletters and reports to donors he would write, “We spent two days in San Jose for a physical examination,” or “We had a good visit with our mother.” Detractors began to call La Paz “The Magic Mountain.”
In 1977, Chavez became friendly with a con-man named Charles Dederich. Dederich had started something called Synanon, which started out as a way to get people off drugs but became a cult in which members turned over their assets to Dederich. He and his black wife presided over group weddings of members, ordered them to swap wives, and at one point insisted that all his followers shave their heads.
One of the trademarks of Synanon was something called the Game, in which people gathered in groups to shout abuse at each other in the vilest possible language. This was supposed to build trust, but gave Dederich a way to humiliate and control members. He demonstrated the Game to Chavez, who took to it immediately, and introduced it to La Paz. Many employees were appalled by the Game, but thought they had no choice but to play. Chavez’s wife Helen and his brother Richard were among the few who refused to play but were not turfed out as traitors.
Chavez was dazzled by Dederich, whom he considered a genius at group psychology. During one of Chavez’s visits to a Synanon compound, Dederich told him: “All these young punks that you see around here have one mission in life: that’s to wait on me and make me feel wonderful. . . . I’m going to put you in a position like that in about 15 years.”
“I like it,” replied Chavez.
La Paz became a cult. When Chavez gave orders that everyone had to work in the vegetable and flower gardens on Saturday, everyone obeyed. A priest who visited complained that La Paz was a place “where people walk around in fear and act like zombies or robots.” In 1978, Chavez took a six-day mind control course and started claiming he could cure people by laying on hands.
Chavez was having affairs. Many people knew it, but kept quiet to spare his wife and to protect his image as a saintly Catholic family man. When Helen found a love letter from a teen-aged girlfriend, Chavez claimed growers had forged the letter to discredit him. In an unusual act of independence, Helen moved out of La Paz. “He wants to make the babies, but he doesn’t want to take care of them,” Helen once complained. Volunteers offered to teach Helen to drive, but Chavez wanted her at home. Chavez’s brother Richard married one of Helen’s close friends, but he started having children with Dolores Huerta. Helen swallowed her fury. She also let Chavez coax her back to La Paz.
Meanwhile, union dues started to dry up as workers decertified the UFW or signed up with the Teamsters. Chavez started pushing for contracts at any price, accepting deals he would earlier have rejected.
Chavez had always scorned the idea of taking government money, because it meant giving up independence. Now, he actively sought grants from the US Department of Labor because he no longer had to pay attention to workers: “With government money you don’t even have to talk to them [workers].” Chavez had always claimed his movement was going to be run by farm workers for farm workers; instead, he staffed the union with family members, old cronies, and white professionals–so long as they toadied to him.
In 1978, the police raided Synanon and found evidence of tax fraud and of an attempt to murder a lawyer who represented ex-cult members who wanted their assets back. Four days after the raid, another cult was in the news after 900 members of the Jim Jones cult committed suicide in Guyana. A Democratic state legislator put out a press release comparing La Paz to the Guyana cult, and UFW staff started joking about Kool Aid. Chavez stopped playing the Game.
Miss Pawel does not say this specifically, but she makes it clear that Chavez cared much more about being a star than helping workers, and that he probably stopped caring about them at all. It thrilled him to humiliate “Anglo” growers and drag them to the negotiating table, but he had no patience for enforcing contracts. He hated legislation that might help farm workers but would put him out of business. He criticized “selfish” workers who cared about higher wages and didn’t understand the need for “sacrifice.” He claimed workers were running the UFW, but lived at La Paz, where he never saw any.
But the clearest of proof of his indifference to the welfare of workers was how he treated competitor unions. It was clear that Chavez would never delegate enough authority for someone to establish the UFW outside of California, so former colleagues started organizing in Arizona on their own–and had some success with illegals as well as legal workers. Chavez was furious. He accused the union leader of being a communist agent, threatened to have the members deported, and got his lawyers to sue in state and federal court to try to nullify the union’s contracts. Shortly after he criticized a clothing bank the union was running, someone burned it down. Chavez even tried to persuade a Phoenix bishop to take back a $100,000 grant he had made to a group affiliated with the union.
“The two Jews”
Purges became more vicious. When his activist white lawyers, who were working for starvation wages, asked for a raise, Chavez fired them, along with the UFW’s general counsel, Jerry Cohen, who had helped engineer the union’s greatest successes. Chavez claimed he could do without greedy “Anglos.” At about the same time, he fired another long-time and highly capable collaborator, Marshall Ganz. Cohen and Ganz were Jews, and at the 1981 UFW convention, Chavez put down an insurgent vote by distributing pamphlets claiming that his opponents were being manipulated by “the two Jews,” who thought they were superior to Mexicans and wanted to take over the union.
By the end of the 1980s, Chavez was spending most of his time making money, often with openly commercial ventures. In 1988, he controlled no fewer than 18 non-profit and commercial entities in addition to the UFW. One was a business that bought scores of houses in foreclosure, fixed them up, and flipped them for big profits.
Where did the money come from? When Chavez signed his very first contract in 1970, he set up something called the Martin Luther King Jr. fund into which members paid 2 cents (later 5 cents) for every hour they worked. This was supposed to pay for health and pension plans for migrant workers, but most of it was never spent, and sat in the bank earning interests. By 1983, Chavez was spending millions from this fund flipping houses. In 1989, the fund had $8 million in the bank, accountable only to Cesar Chavez.
Miss Pawel notes that union labor got almost none of the work fixing up the houses. Union leaders, who had given the UFW strike money in its glory days, were livid; they recalled that Chavez always had his hand out to other unions, but never gave them a dime.
Chavez lost credibility as a labor organizer, but away from the fields, his star continued to shine. In 1990 alone, he spoke at 64 events, and was paid an average of $3,800 per appearance. He was a rock-star hero on college campuses, where volunteers who put on his speeches got a detailed list of requirements: how many cars to have in his cortege, how to set up the podium, exactly what foods to have on hand for his macrobiotic diet. He always appeared in his trade-mark flannel shirt and work boots, and got a standing ovation no matter what he said.
Violence and corner cutting finally caught up with him. In 1987, the union had to pay $1.7 million in damages to a grower because of violence. The government audited some of the Chavez organizations and demanded repayment of hundreds of thousands in misspent grant money. Miss Pawel notes that in one lawsuit Chavez clearly perjured himself, but the judge let him off, noting only that Chavez was mistaken. Baby boomers who had grown up boycotting grapes were now the establishment, and a saint could hardly go to jail for perjury.
In the 1980s, Chavez found a new enemy: pesticides. He spent huge sums on TV ads, and called for boycotts. “Our workers and their children are being poisoned in the killing fields of California’s table grape industry,” he railed, but the boycott failed. He raised $100,000 for a pesticide lab and got thousands of dollars in donated equipment. The lab never opened.
In 1988, he raised the stakes against pesticides with another media-circus fast. Jesse Jackson and Ethel Kennedy were on hand to salaam when he broke his fast–with a communion wafer. The growers and the public ignored him, so Chavez sniffed out traitors to blame for this failure, and ordered another round of purges. This time, Chris Hartmire, who had started with the Migrant Ministries and had been loyal for more than 20 years, was the scapegoat. He wrote in his diary: “In a way, I got what was coming to me. I went along with a lot of rotten stuff . . . . I not only went along, I interpreted these events so that Cesar would be protected.”
So many people cleared out or were purged that La Paz became a ghost town. As one long-termer put it after he had finally packed up in disgust, “how far he [Chavez] is in reality from the image so many good people have of him.”
Chavez struggled on into the 1990s as a phony union man but still a media hero. In 1993, he was ordered to testify in a case alleging illegal activity in connection with a failed lettuce boycott. Opposing counsel was well prepared, and Chavez’s testimony went badly. He had been fasting, but ate dinner that night and went to bed early. The next morning he was found dead in bed. He was 66 years old.
Chavez went off in a blaze of glory. Tens of thousands of fans filed by his casket. Cardinal Roger Mahoney delivered the eulogy before 40,000 mourners, and 120 pall bearers took turns carrying the casket. No Hispanic hero could have asked for more.
What did Chavez want?
Today, Chavez is a racial hero to Hispanics, but at least from this biography, ethnic solidarity does not seem to have been his main preoccupation. He certainly used race if he thought it would be useful. When the UFW was competing with the Teamsters to sign up farm labor, he argued that “these workers are all brown and black workers and they want our union. They don’t want to be led by white men who don’t understand their needs.”
Sometimes, he presented himself as a Hispanic leader. In 1984, when he spoke to the Commonwealth Club, a bastion of the San Francisco elite, he had a message that went far beyond labor organizing:
We [Hispanics] have looked into the future, and the future is ours. History and inevitability are on our side. . . . 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.
And yet, Chavez never had much to do with the National Council of La Raza, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), or radical groups like MEChA. He chewed through white supporters and volunteers, but he also kept a few whites in important positions for years. He played no role in getting amnesty for illegals in 1986, and made no special effort to unionize the newly legal Hispanics.
The man who now looks down benignly from countless campus and neighborhood murals is clearly supposed to be a leader of la raza, but this book suggests that Cesar Chavez had only one consuming preoccupation: Cesar Chavez.