The Madness of Cesar Chavez

A new biography of the icon shows that saints should be judged guilty until proved innocent.
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Ted Streshinsky/Corbis

Once a year, in the San Joaquin Valley in Central California, something spectacular happens. It lasts only a couple of weeks, and it’s hard to catch, because the timing depends on so many variables. But if you’re patient, and if you check the weather reports from Fresno and Tulare counties obsessively during the late winter and early spring, and if you are also willing, on very little notice, to drop everything and make the unglamorous drive up (or down) to that part of the state, you will see something unforgettable. During a couple of otherworldly weeks, the tens of thousands of fruit trees planted there burst into blossom, and your eye can see nothing, on either side of those rutted farm roads, but clouds of pink and white and yellow. Harvest time is months away, the brutal summer heat is still unimaginable, and in those cool, deserted orchards, you find only the buzzing of bees, the perfumed air, and the endless canopy of color.

I have spent the past year thinking a lot about the San Joaquin Valley, because I have been trying to come to terms with the life and legacy of Cesar Chavez, whose United Farm Workers movement—born in a hard little valley town called Delano—played a large role in my California childhood. I spent the year trying, with increasing frustration, to square my vision of him, and of his movement, with one writer’s thorough and unflinching reassessment of them. Beginning five years ago, with a series of shocking articles in the Los Angeles Times, and culminating now in one of the most important recent books on California history, Miriam Pawel has undertaken a thankless task: telling a complicated and in many ways shattering truth. That her book has been so quietly received is not owing to a waning interest in the remarkable man at its center. Streets and schools and libraries are still being named for Chavez in California; his long-ago rallying cry of “Sí, se puede” remains so evocative of ideas about justice and the collective power of the downtrodden that Barack Obama adopted it for his presidential campaign. No, the silence greeting the first book to come to terms with Chavez’s legacy arises from the human tendency to be stubborn and romantic and (if the case requires it) willfully ignorant in defending the heroes we’ve chosen for ourselves. That silence also attests to the way Chavez touched those of us who had any involvement with him, because the full legacy has to include his singular and almost mystical way of eliciting not just fealty but a kind of awe. Something cultlike always clung to the Chavez operation, and so while I was pained to learn in Pawel’s book of Chavez’s enthrallment with an actual cult—with all the attendant paranoia and madness—that development makes sense.

In the face of Pawel’s book, I felt compelled to visit the places where Chavez lived and worked, although it’s hard to tempt anyone to join you on a road trip to somewhere as bereft of tourist attractions as the San Joaquin Valley. But one night in late February, I got a break: someone who’d just driven down from Fresno told me that the trees were almost in bloom, and that was all I needed. I took my 13-year-old son, Conor, out of school for a couple of days so we could drive up the 99 and have a look. I was thinking of some things I wanted to show him, and some I wanted to see for myself. It would be “experiential learning”; it would be a sentimental journey. At times it would be a covert operation.

One Saturday night, when I was 9 or 10 years old, my parents left the dishes in the sink and dashed out the driveway for their weekend treat: movie night. But not half an hour later—just enough time for the round trip from our house in the Berkeley Hills to the United Artists theater down on Shattuck—they were right back home again, my mother hanging up her coat with a sigh, and my father slamming himself angrily into a chair in front of The Bob Newhart Show.

What happened?

“Strike,” he said bitterly.

One of the absolute rules of our household, so essential to our identity that it was never even explained in words, was that a picket line didn’t mean “maybe.” A picket line meant “closed.” This rule wasn’t a point of honor or a means of forging solidarity with the common man, someone my father hoped to encounter only in literature. It came from a way of understanding the world, from the fierce belief that the world was divided between workers and owners. The latter group was always, always trying to exploit the former, which—however improbably, given my professor father’s position in life—was who we were.

In the history of human enterprise, there can have been no more benevolent employer than the University of California in the 1960s and ’70s, yet to hear my father and his English-department pals talk about the place, you would have thought they were working at the Triangle shirtwaist factory. Not buying a movie ticket if the ushers were striking meant that if the shit really came down, and the regents tried to make full professors teach Middlemarch seminars over summer vacation, the ushers would be there for you. As a child, I burned brightly with the justice of these concepts, and while other children were watching Speed Racer or learning Chinese jump rope, I spent a lot of my free time working for the United Farm Workers.

Everything about the UFW and its struggle was right-sized for a girl: it involved fruits and vegetables, it concerned the most elementary concepts of right and wrong, it was something you could do with your mom, and most of your organizing could be conducted just outside the grocery store, which meant you could always duck inside for a Tootsie Pop. The cement apron outside a grocery store, where one is often accosted—in a manner both winsome and bullying—by teams of Brownies pressing their cookies on you, was once my barricade and my bully pulpit.

Of course, it had all started with Mom. Somewhere along the way, she had met Cesar Chavez, or at least attended a rally where he had spoken, and that was it. Like almost everyone else who ever encountered him, she was spellbound. “This wonderful, wonderful man,” she would call him, and off we went to collect clothes for the farmworkers’ children, and to sell red-and-black UFW buttons and collect signatures. It was our thing: we loved each other, we loved doing little projects, we had oceans of free time (has anyone in the history of the world had more free time than mid-century housewives and their children?), and we were both constitutionally suited to causes that required grudge-holding and troublemaking and making things better for people in need. Most of all, though, we loved Cesar.

In those heady, early days of the United Farm Workers, in the time of the great five-year grape strike that started in 1965, no reporter, not even the most ironic among them, failed to remark upon, if not come under, Chavez’s sway. “The Messianic quality about him,” observed John Gregory Dunne in his brilliant 1967 book, Delano, “is suggested by his voice, which is mesmerizing—soft, perfectly modulated, pleasantly accented.” Peter Matthiessen’s book-length profile of Chavez, which consumed two issues of The New Yorker in the summer of 1969, reported: “He is the least boastful man I have ever met.” Yet within this self-conscious and mannered presentation of inarticulate deference was an ability to shape both a romantic vision and a strategic plan. Never since then has so great a gift been used for so small a cause. In six months, he took a distinctly regional movement and blasted it into national, and then international, fame.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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