In Barack Obama’s decidedly secular universe, Cesar Chavez is a saint. While many were stunned that tech giant Google would honor Chavez on Easter Sunday, the move makes perfect sense given Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s ties to the President. Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan “Yes, we can!” was adapted from Chavez’s “Si se puede!” and Obama even traveled to central California last year to dedicate Chavez’s home “La Paz” as a national monument.
La Paz is a strange location to honor, however. It’s part of Cesar Chavez’s dark, weird history–a place where a paranoid Chavez ruled a United Farm Workers communal living arrangement through the use of bizarre, 1970s pop-psych intimidation that he learned from a violent cult leader who was his long-time friend.
The reality is a far cry from the smiling, benevolent depictions of Chavez presented by Google and Chavez’s community organizing heirs like Obama, but it’s all true and a lot stranger than most fictional stories you’ll read.
Cesar Chavez and the mythology surrounding him didn’t rise mystically out of the fertile fields around Bakersfield. Chavez was created with the help of none other than Saul Alinsky, the father of modern community organizing and Obama’s spiritual mentor.
Specifically, Chavez’s mentor was Alinsky employee Fred Ross, founder of the Community Service Organization (CSO). Chavez would eventually go on to become the head of CSO nationally. Fred Ross also mentored longtime United Farm Worker activist Dolores Huerta, who President Barack Obama honored last year with the Medal Of Freedom. Former Democrat Secretaries of Labor Robert Reich and Hilda Solis recently sent the President a letter suggesting a Medal of Freedom for Ross, as well.
The official bio on the Chavez Foundation website says, “Cesar made everyone, especially the farm workers, feel the jobs they were doing in the movement were very important.”
But the real Cesar Chavez treated his volunteers horribly: “Those of us who worked boycott operations worked 14-16 hour days, often 7 days a week. We were paid $5/week and had to beg for donated food to eat. Once we were burned out, the UFW happily replaced us in a process Chavez once compared with pumping water,” writes Manley.
And Chavez actually had contempt for the farmworkers. In a meeting in 1977, he referred to them as “pigs.” The comments were reportedly removed from the minutes of the meeting: “Every time we look at [the farmworkers], they want more money. Like pigs, you know. Here we’re slaving, and we’re starving and the goddam workers don’t give a shit about anything because we don’t train them, you know, we don’t teach them anything.”
Chavez, the supposed hero of Mexican-Americans, also was an active enemy of illegal immigrants, whom he saw as a threat to striking workers. The UFW even carried out violence against illegals: “Under the supervision of Chavez’s cousin, Manuel, UFW members tried at first to persuade Mexicans not to cross the border. One time when that didn’t work, they physically attacked and beat them up to scare them off…”
The strangest stories about Chavez came in the 1970s, due to Chavez’s association with a man named Chuck Dederich, the founder of the infamous organization Synanon.
Charles E. “Chuck” Dederich, a well-known member of Alcoholics Anonymous, started Synanon in 1958. The idea was to apply some AA principles to illegal drug users that AA didn’t accept at the time. Dederich took over a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica, California and the group took off, becoming a place where junkies and celebrities could slum together. There was even a 1965 movie about the group—before Synaon became a bizarre, violent cult of personality—and the trailer for the film must be seen to be believed.
Dederich kept Synanon close to the 1960s radical chic elite, even hosting a street fair concert in Oakland that had 75,000 attendees. Part of Dedeirch keeping that street cred involved helping out political groups like the Black Panther Party and Chavez’s United Farm Workers, but Dederich’s association with Chavez went back to the 1950s, according to a 1978 UPI article, which quotes a spokesman for the United Farm Workers.
The article also mentions that Chavez and the UFW used Synanon’s “Game” as a regular activity. “The Game” was created by Dederich and was a form of what’s come to be known as attack therapy: the subject is literally insulted, screamed at, and abused by a group of people. It’s a means of collective control designed to break down a person’s sense of individuality. The nightmarish technique caught the imagination of Chavez after he saw a demonstration of the cult that Synanon had become.
In 1971, Chavez had moved his United Farm Worker followers to La Paz in the Tehachapi mountains of Keene, California, where they lived communally and Chavez paid them $10 a week. He reconnected with Dederich.
Paul Morantz is a writer and attorney who exposed Dederich and was nearly killed for it when Synanon loyalists put rattlesnakes in his mailbox. Morantz says about Chavez:
Like Synanon, the UFW became family run, Chavez’s brother and sons all having high positions. Everyone checked with Cesar before making a decision. Some referred to him as the God of the Movement who must control every aspect. Chavez, like Dederich, believed in importance of community– he was partial to the idea of a kibbutz–and also liked to experiment with different lifestyles. It was only natural that he would develop a close association which Charles Dederich.
In the mid-70s, the relationship between Chavez and Dederich would take the labor leader even deeper into madness. Chavez visited one of Dederich’s Synanon camps in northern California and Morantz writes:
Chavez was an [sic] awe. He saw an organization bringing in millions of dollars a year. He saw Dederich as a famous man who pioneered self-help methods and he envied the efficiency of Synanon jitneys, autos and motorcycles transporting smiling faces endlessly to their chores. He was most impressed with the fact that no one criticized the thoughts of the leader. The Old Man, Chavez decided, knew how to create a community.
In turn Dederich was flattered by the adulation from one who had obtained popularity representing the underdog and who in Dederich could see some of himself. He wooed Chavez by giving him buses, cars and food and advised him if he really wanted to turn La Paz into a Synanon-like community Chavez should import the Synanon game.
A 2009 article on Left Business Observer details the result of Chavez’s odd obsessions. Michael Yates is a committed leftist—a recent blog post of his expressed his love for recently deceased Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez—but even an avowed radical can see the problem with Cesar Chavez’s spiraling God complex. As Yates writes:
At the time of Chávez’s fascination with Synanon and the “Game,” Dederich was a megalomaniacal cult leader, abusing his clientele. A reporter who exposed the organization found a rattlesnake in his mailbox.
César took to the “game” like Stalin to the secret police, and he used it for the same purpose—to consolidate his power in the union. He took some trusted members of his inner circle to Synanon for training and began immediately to force the game upon the staff. On April 4, 1977, he incited a screaming mob of “Game” initiates to purge the union of “troublemakers.” All sorts of ridiculous charges were made against “enemies of the union”…
This all happened at Chavez’s compound at La Paz, the place that President Barack Obama named as a National Monument.