To Die Standing: Cesar Chavez and the Chicanos

A look backward provides a glimpse ahead. The work done in the vineyards around Delano, California, in the years of the grape-pickers’ strike has fed the ferment now going on in city streets where MexicanAmericans who have “deserted the hoe for the car wash” are moved by the mystique of Chavez and the words of Zapata.

THE Atlantic FOUNDED IN 1857

by John Gregory Dunne

It was a long time before I returned to Delano. I passed it a number of times on my way to Sacramento, where I have family, but I never had the urge to stop. It was not a place of old friends and warm memories. It was a place where I had been and a place I was glad to leave. There was something sad and brooding about it, an endless, unfinished chapter straddling Highway 99. The things I remembered about Delano were all tangential to what was happening there. In no sense could they be used to make a point, to show a moral. I remember a cool night in the foothills of the Sierra when a panicky young farm worker was casually seduced by a California golden girl. I remember the boy still desperately picking on his guitar even as he was being led off to the bedroom, and I remember that the next morning when the girl knocked on my door to wake me, she wasn’t wearing any clothes. I remember a grower named Jack Pandol telling me that he really had very little in common with his brother-in-law, who was also a farmer, and when I asked why, he said simply, “He’s in alfalfa, I’m in grapes.”

I did not sense then, as I do now, the gulf between all I heard and read and saw that summer of 1966—the “story,” in other words—and what strikes me in retrospect increasingly as the “real,” those moments that have no function in the “story,” but which seem now more interesting, more imaginatively to the point, more evocative of how we live and what we feel. Jack Pandol’s story about his brother-in-law was real and said more about what it was like being a grower than all the cant I heard and all the account books I read that hot summer. There was in it the embattled sense of being alone, as well as the implicit feeling that if he didn’t have much in common with his brother-in-law, he was going to have even less in common with Cesar Chavez. And the California golden girl’s seduction of the young farm worker was real. It is clear to me now that no amount of good faith on her part could bridge the chasm of social and sexual custom between them. She worked hard and loyally for Chavez, but in the end I think she had even less communion with the farm workers than Pandol.

I became further estranged from the events in Delano by the promiscuity of the attention lavished on Chavez. We have become a nation of ten-minute celebrities, pandering to the cultural nymphomania of the media. People, issues, and causes hit the charts like rock groups, and with approximately as much staying power. For all the wrong reasons, Chavez had all the right credentials—mysticism, nonviolence, the nobility of the soil—credentials that explained less about him than they did about the national lust for glamour and image and promise. One could thus fete the grape workers on a Long Island estate, as the rich and beautiful once did, without a thought about the Suffolk County potato workers only a few miles away living in conditions as wretched as any picker’s in California.

And so I followed the strike from afar until that day last summer, when after five years of bitter struggle, it finally came to an end. “We are happy peace has come to this valley,” a growers’ spokesman said at the contract-signing ceremony. “It has been a mutual victory.”

“Mutual victory”—the phrase had the hollow sound of rhetoric, and one thing I learned in Delano that summer of 1966 was that the territory behind rhetoric is too often mined with equivocation. I wondered who, if anyone, was really victorious, wondered how ambiguity had tinctured victory. And so for the first time in four years, I returned to Delano, goaded there by the instinctive feeling that there are no solutions, only at best amelioration, and never ultimate answers, final truths.


It was Robert Kennedy who legitimized Chavez. Prior to 1966, when the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor held hearings in the valley, no Democrat would touch the Chavez movement. It had been necessary to attract a few Southern votes if prolabor legislation were to pass in the Congress, and Southern agrarians would not toss even a bone toward labor unless farm workers were excluded from all provisions of any proposed bill. Robert Kennedy was no stranger to either expedience or good politics, and, along with most of organized labor, saw little to be gained from an identification with Chavez. But he was persuaded to attend the hearings by one of his aides, Peter Edelman, acting in concert with a handful of union officials alive to the drama in Delano. Even flying to California, Kennedy was reluctant to get involved, demanding of his staff, “Why am I going?” He finally showed up at the hearings a day late. The effect was electric, a perfect meeting of complementary mystiques. Kennedy—arrogant, a predator in the corridors of power; and Chavez—nonviolent, Christian, mystical, not without a moral imperative of his own. The Kennedys sponged up ideas, and implicit in Chavez was the inexorable strength of an idea whose time had come. Kennedy’s real concern for the farm workers helped soften his image as a self-serving keeper of his brother’s flame and in turn plugged Chavez into the power outlets of Washington and New York. For the first time, Chavez became fashionable, a national figure registering on the nation’s moral thermometer. Robert Kennedy and Cesar Chavez—the names seemed wired into the same circuitry, the one a spokesman, the other a symbol for the constituency of the dispossessed.

Whatever the readings on fame’s Geiger counter, it was a bad time in Delano. The strike, in 1968, was mired in quicksand. An attempt to organize the grape ranches of the Coachella Valley had failed miserably. The threat of violence hung heavy. A newspaper in Indio reported a $10,000 bounty on Chavez’s head. Bodyguards and a German shepherd watchdog hovered around him. And then Robert Kennedy was killed the same day that Chavez had dispatched platoons of his supporters into the East Los Angeles barrios to round up votes for his benefactor in the California Democratic primary.

The strike had begun to lose its momentum the year before. The last Delano grower to sign with Chavez was Perelli-Minetti, and even that was by default. Perelli-Minetti had originally settled with the Teamsters, an agreement bitterly assailed by Chavez as a sweetheart contract, and it was only after the two unions arbitrated their jurisdictions that UFWOC (United Farm Workers Organizing Committee) inherited the Perelli-Minetti workers. Chavez’s next target was the Giumarra Vineyards, the largest table-grape growers in America, themselves controlling 10 percent of the annual crop, and a company not especially beatified by its enlightened views on the labor movement. His strategy was a San Joaquin Valley version of the domino theory: knock over Giumarra, and the other growers will fall in line.

The strike against Giumarra proved one thing— there wasn’t a picket line in the world that could force a grower to agree to a contract. Workers pulled out on strike were readily replaced by scabs and green-carders—foreign nationals (in this case Mexicans) with U.S. work permits. Striking pickers were usually out of town working somewhere else before the applicable state agencies even arrived to certify their departure. Nor were there ever as many workers out on strike as UFWOC liked to claim. It simply defied all logic for a picker to walk off the job. However grandiose (by grower standards) a picker’s hourly wage, his annual income was barely at subsistence level, if indeed that high. Given that picking is one of the most miserable jobs known to man, it is usually—for whatever social or cultural reasons—the best a picker can hold. So no matter how much he favored the union, he would have had to be a sainted fanatic to go on strike and further increase his own and his family’s level of misery.

Against Giumarra, Chavez needed another edge, and he fell back on the boycott he had used so successfully in 1966 to break the Schenley and DiGiorgio corporations. Both these concerns were publicly held, however, susceptible to stockholder pressure, and both had a line of consumer products that could be successfully boycotted. Table grapes were another thing altogether. There was no label identification; a bunch of grapes was a bunch of grapes. The problem did not deter Chavez. He seems to regard a boycott almost as a religious experience. “It’s like quicksand,” he says, “it’s irreversible. Once it gets going, it creates a life of its own. It reaches a point where nothing can stop it. It’s like trying to fight the mind.”

The Giumarras were equal to the blow. When UFWOC prevailed on stores to stop buying the Giumarra label, the firm began borrowing labels from other growers and using them in place of its own. Even a rebuke from the Food and Drug Administration charging that label-switching was contrary to federal regulations did not deter the grower. By the end of 1967, Giumarra was using, by union count, 105 different labels. In retaliation, UFWOC early in 1968 extended its boycott beyond Giumarra to include every California grower of table grapes.

As the growers dug in, there was within the union a certain impatience, a certain fraying of the precepts of nonviolence. The imperceptible erosion of the growers’ position was not particularly heady to union militants steeped in the literature of the headlines, the combat communiques from the core cities. There was a new truculence in the air; packing crates were burned, tires slashed, scabs roughed up. Chavez was not unaware of the nascent violence. Late in February, 1968, he quietly began a penitential fast to direct the movement back onto its nonviolent course. Only on the sixth day of the fast did he alert aides to what he was doing. No one had to be apprised of its exploitative potential. The circus aspect of the next seventeen days (the fast lasted twenty-three days) dismayed a number of Chavez’s staunchest supporters who, while not doubting his intentions, nevertheless deplored the manner in which union aides pandered to the media that flocked to Delano. If not actively choreographing the fast, UFWOC officials did little to discourage the faithful who seemed to equate it with the Second Coming. Tents were pitched for farm workers maintaining a vigil for Chavez, and old women crawled on their knees from the highway to the quarters where he was lodged for the duration of the fast.

Whatever its indulgences, the fast was like a hypodermic full of pure adrenalin pumped into the union. But the fast had also endangered Chavez’s always perilous health. One of his legs is shorter than the other, one side of his pelvis smaller. Six months after his fast, his energies depleted, Chavez was hospitalized. His condition was diagnosed as a degenerating spinal disc. For months he remained virtually an invalid, resisting treatment. Then early in 1969, Senator Edward Kennedy sent Dr. Janet Travell, the back specialist who had treated John Kennedy, to Delano at his own expense to look at Chavez. Dr. Travell concluded that Chavez’s problem was not spinal but the result of muscular breakdown in his back. Her treatment (among other things, she prescribed a rocking chair) gradually freed Chavez from his bed. Without pain for the first time in nearly a dozen years, he could turn his full attention to a strike that by mid-1969 seemed endless.


In John Giumarra, Jr., a Stanford Law School graduate who gave up a practice in Orange County to come home as the family firm’s general counsel, the growers had their most impressive spokesman. Compared to the primitives of the elder generation, he seemed in contrast practically epicene. Not for him any vulgar Red-baiting; even the ritualistic evocation of outside agitation was toned down. The 1968 election gave the growers a friendly Administration in Washington, and an almost immediate by-product was a substantial jump in the Pentagon’s purchase of table grapes. Pentagon spokesmen indignantly denied that the increased purchases were meant to undercut the boycott, claiming instead that military chefs de cuisine had merely whipped up a number of new grape delicacies. The growers even developed a degree of media sophistication of their own. J. Walter Thompson, the nation’s largest advertising agency, was hired to come up with a campaign extolling table grapes (it seemed impossible for a while to open a homemaking magazine without the eyes feasting on some alchemy of grapes and sour cream and brown sugar) and Whitaker & Baxter, a public relations firm specializing in political causes (it was involved in the American Medical Association’s effort against Medicare), was engaged to produce material countering the boycott. The gist of this publicity campaign was that the boycott was being kept alive only by the greed of the AFL-CIO: if Chavez were successful in organizing all the country’s 2 million farm workers, it would mean $84 million a year in union dues in the AFL-CIO’s coffers.

The Madison Avenue techniques notwithstanding, the growers were hurting. In New York, the world’s largest market for table grapes, the boycott had cut the number of railroad boxcars unloaded in 1968 by a third, in Baltimore by nearly half. Many supermarket chains simply refused to carry California table grapes. In some instances, their motives were not altogether humanitarian. Union locals hinted broadly that butchers and retail clerks would not cross UFWOC picket lines unless grapes came off the shelves. Not long after the National Labor Relations Board put a stop to such intimidation, fires were discovered in at least three New York A&P’s, cause in each instance unknown, although it was the considered opinion of the city’s chief fire marshal that the boycott might have been a contributing factor. If a message was intended, it was received loud and clear. Across the country, grapes disappeared from the stores.

The success of the boycott was enhanced by the uncertain state of the economy. Agriculture is a carnivorous business. Farmers feed on the misfortunes of their own; a disastrous frost in Arizona profits the growers of the same crop in the San Joaquin Valley. Crops are subject to roller-coaster fluctuations. The large harvest in 1969 depressed grape prices; the short crop in 1970 was more susceptible to strike and boycott, and the recession was bleeding growers as it bled the rest of the country. The grape business was plagued by bankruptcies. Money was short, interest was high. Farmers were paying 9 and 10 percent for bank loans to start their crop; the shakier the grower’s finances, the higher the interest he had to pay.

The growers’ predicament, however, was not designed to elicit much sympathy. Though they might claim that they were getting stuck with someone else’s check, the bill for a hundred years of often malevolent paternalism was now being called in. If that bill seemed inflated by a surcharge of moral indignation, one had only to remember how long past due it was. The growers had finally run afoul of the times. A man with thousands of acres worth millions of dollars simply did not have the emotional appeal of a faceless crowd of brownskinned men, women, and children eking out a fetid existence, crammed into substandard housing, isolated by language and custom from the rest of a community that scorned them. Never mind that the grower was mortgaged to the eyeballs, strangling on 9 and 10 percent interest payments. In the summer of 1970, high interest rates did not sing like food stamps.

The first break came from a handful of growers in the Coachella Valley. They signed with UFWOC, and boxes of their grapes, adorned with the union’s black eagle emblem, were exempted from the boycott. After the May harvest, the union growers found their grapes bringing 25 cents to one dollar more per box than those of the boycotted farmers. The lesson was not lost on the Delano growers. Late one night in July, John Giumarra, Jr., made his move. From a pay phone at a dance he was attending in Bakersfield, he called Jerome Cohen, UFWOC’s lawyer, in Delano. He told Cohen that he was flying out of Bakersfield at nine the next morning on a mission that could have “drastic consequences” for the grape industry; he asked if he could meet with Chavez before he made this “major move.” (He did not mention what this major move was, and when I asked him six months later, he still refused. “It’s water under the bridge,” Giumarra said.) Cohen got hold of Chavez, who had been making a speech that night in San Rafael. Tired though he was, Chavez agreed to an immediate meeting. At 2 A.M., the parties met at the Stardust Motel in Delano and negotiated for the next six hours. Early Sunday morning they had reached tentative agreement. That same day Giumarra presented the agreement to the other Delano growers. I asked him how they had reacted. “Well, we had already stuck our foot in the water, and I guess they thought it wouldn’t hurt to see where negotiations led,” Giumarra recalled. “But I wouldn’t say any of the growers jumped up and down and said, ‘Gee, hand me a contract.’”

Three days later, the twenty-six Delano growers signed a contract with UFWOC.

That was the grape strike.


The lettuce strike had already begun in Salinas. Even while the Delano contract was being negotiated, the lettuce growers of the Salinas Valley, aware that they were next on Chavez’s agenda, hastily signed an agreement allowing the Teamsters to represent their field workers. Whatever the Teamsters were, what they were not was a union run by a radical Mexican mystic, and to the growers this was a most seductive enticement.

Since Chavez and the Teamsters had agreed three years before not to poach on each other’s territory, the Salinas announcement was tantamount to a declaration of war. Late in August, Chavez struck the Salinas ranches. On the first day of the strike, between 5000 and 7000 workers walked off the job. The mood at UFWOC was euphoric. Never before had Chavez been able to pull workers out of the fields in any substantial numbers. The effect on the growers was immediate. Railroad carloads of lettuce shipped out of Salinas slipped from a normal 250 a day to as low as 35. In some areas the wholesale price of lettuce soared from $1.75 a crate to $6.00; in Los Angeles supermarkets the retail price rose 10 cents a head in a single day. Grower losses mounted to $500,000 a day. The numbers were enough to convince a few of the larger Salinas growers to sign with UFWOC. “The Teamsters had our contract,” said a spokesman for Inter-Harvest, a subsidiary of United Fruit, “but UFWOC had our workers.”

The majority of Salinas growers did not see it that way. In vain they tried to get an injunction against the strike, claiming they were the victims of a jurisdictional dispute between UFWOC and the Teamsters; a judge in Santa Maria ruled against the injunction on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence that the Teamsters actually had the support of the field workers. The Teamsters seemed to be schizophrenic about the whole thing. On the one hand, Teamster antipathy toward Chavez and his “smelly hippies” had long been documented; on the other, the Teamsters could count. The Teamster solution was to renege on its contracts with the growers and turn them over to UFWOC. The growers would have none of it; a marriage of convenience was still a marriage. It was an unprecedented situation—management holding to the sanctity of contracts for workers the union no longer wanted to represent. Not quite sure what to do, the Teamsters bent a few UFWOC skulls just to keep in practice and talked a lot about law and order. To an outsider it was all quite droll. Nor did the uncompromising majesty of the law make it seem any less so. Less than three weeks after the Santa Maria decision, a judge in Salinas, ruling on virtually the same evidence, issued a permanent injunction against all UFWOC strike activity in the Salinas area.

Chavez’s response was immediate. Hardly were his picket lines withdrawn than he ordered a nationwide boycott of all non-UFWOC lettuce from California and Arizona. Ironically, Chavez’s most prominent foe in Salinas, Bud Antle, Incorporated, was not really a particular UFWOC target. In a situation almost unique in California, Bud Antle’s lettuce workers had been under union contract since 1961. Not that Bud Antle’s intentions in allowing the organization of their field workers were entirely altruistic. Nine years before, the Teamsters had lent the financially straitened company $1 million, and the quid pro quo was a union contract for, among others, the lettuce workers. Though he frequently alluded to the Teamster loan, Chavez had no real wish to challenge the contract. But in an across-the-board boycott, things get broken; it was the classic case of omelet and egg.

The boycott against Bud Antle landed Chavez in jail for the first time in his career. Under court injunction to end the boycott against the firm, Chavez refused. Three weeks before Christmas, 1970, a Salinas judge ordered him to jail until he did so. However impeccable the court order legally, the jailing of Chavez backfired against the growers emotionally. In plain terms, the lettuce boycott had been, up to this point, a flop. Five grinding years of strike and boycott against the grape growers had simply run down the batteries of Chavez’s supporters. His incarceration, however, was an instant recharge. A vigil was set up outside the Salinas County jail. The star names pilgrimaged to Salinas, led by the widows, Coretta King and Ethel Kennedy, whose very presence was a stark reminder of those insane few months when martyrdom seemed the only resolution to the nation’s problems. On Christmas Eve, Chavez was released from jail pending a hearing on his case by a higher tribunal. But his jailing had given the boycott so much momentum that the Teamsters announced a boycott of their own, a boycott against the loading or unloading of any UFWOC-picked crops, at least until UFWOC called off its campaign against Bud Antle. The permutations seemed endless. It was as if the lessons of Delano were written on the wind.


The harvest from the grape strike is like a short crop in a good year. Because of Chavez, and Chavez alone, it is now possible to predict that all farm labor will be organized in the foreseeable future. Perhaps not by UFWOC. Old habits die hard, and for growers a farm union is hard enough to swallow without Chavez as a chaser. Most would cheerfully sign their workers over to something like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union if they thought it was the only way to thwart him. Even grower associations are now calling for farm labor to come under the umbrella of the National Labor Relations Board. Six years ago this might have been enough to buy off a strike. Not now. Success has made Chavez very sophisticated, and he is in no hurry to embrace the NLRB. As amended by the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Grifffn acts, the NLRB now prohibits the two major weapons in Chavez’s arsenal—secondary boycotts and organizational strikes. He is very much aware that since the passage of these two amendments, no large group of unskilled labor has been organized. Until adjustments can be made, inclusion under the NLRB is a lollipop Chavez would just as soon forswear.

And yet beyond UFWOC’s demonstrable success, beyond its cool reading of the times, there is little room for euphoria. The nagging thought persists that the strike in Delano was irrelevant except as an abstraction. Victory there was like administering sedatives to a terminal cancer patient, a mercy, a kindness, death-easing rather than life-saving, a victory finally important less for its fulfilled intentions than for what, unintended, it presaged. Higher wages, a fund of new members, greater independence from management—these traditional benchmarks of labor achievement did not really apply to Delano. In the narrowest sense, a union of farm workers can only lighten its members’ burden of misery. The figures are too relentless. Nearly 700,000 workers earned wages in California’s fields and vineyards in 1967 (the most recent year for which comprehensive statistics are available), and while they earned $1.78 an hour on the farm, their average annual income for all work, both farm and nonfarm, was only $1709. And though the 700,000 included foremen, crew leaders, supervisors, and other year-round employees, only 31,000 earned as much as $5000 that year in farm work.

There is simply too little future in farm work. While farms grow bigger and productivity increases, the number of farm workers steadily declines. Four percent of California’s growers own nearly 70 percent of the farmland; 8 percent hire more than 70 percent of the farm labor. Over the past twenty-five years, the number of farms in California has been cut by more than one half. Cities roll past the suburbs into the country, swallowing up small farms that historically soaked up the glut in the labor market, farms far more valuable to the grower as subdivisions than they ever were as raw acreage. Two years ago, less than 2 percent of the wine grapes in Fresno County were harvested by machine; the estimate for 1971 is more than 30 percent. In three years, the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission predicts, 65 percent of the wine and raisin grapes in the San Joaquin Valley will be picked mechanically. Even table grapes could be picked automatically were consumers willing to buy them in boxes, like strawberries, instead of insisting on the aesthetic appeal of bunches. It is estimated that mechanical pickers will cost Fresno County farm workers nearly $2 million in wages during 1971 and that by 1973 some 4500 heads of families will be displaced by machines.

Growers recite these figures as if they were graven on stone. There is little doubt that Chavez has speeded up the wheels of automation, but the implication is that his intransigence has brought misfortune to the workers, and that no one ever dreamed of automation until he came along; indeed, that were it not for Chavez, no machine ever developed, no matter how economical, could ever separate a grower from his beloved workers. The engaging thing about growers is that they really believe it.

The curious thing about Cesar Chavez is that he is as little understood by those who would canonize him as by those who would condemn him. To the saint-makers, Chavez seemed the perfect candidate. He had all the elements of the salable symbol— mysticism, nonviolence, the nobility of the soil. His crusade was devoid of the ambiguities of urban conflict. With the farm workers there were no nagging worries about the mugging down the block, the rape across the street, the car boosted in front of the house. It was a cause populated by simple Mexican peasants with noble agrarian ideas, not by surly black ghetto unemployables with low IQ’s and Molotov cocktails.

All that is missing in this fancy is any apprehension of where the real importance of Cesar Chavez lies. The saintly virtues he had aplenty; it is doubtful that the media would have been attracted to him were it not for those virtues, and without the attention of the media the strike could not have survived. But Chavez also had the virtues of the labor leader, less applauded publicly, perhaps, but no less admirable in the rough going—a will of iron, a certain deviousness, an ability to hang tough in the clinches. Together these twin disciplines kept what often seemed a hopeless struggle alive for six years, six years that kindled an idea that made the idealized nuances of Delano pale by comparison.

For the ultimate impact of Delano will be felt not so much on the farm as in the city. In the vineyards Chavez fertilized an ethnic and cultural pride ungerminated for generations, but it was in the barrio that this new sense of racial identity flourished as if in a hothouse. At one time four fifths of the Mexican-American population lived in the rural outback, but as the farm worker became a technological as well as a social victim, his young deserted the hoe for the car wash. Today that same four fifths float through the urban barrio like travelers without passports, politically impoverished, spiritually disenfranchised. State and municipal governments have so carefully charted the electoral maps that it is impossible for a Mexican-American to get elected without Anglo sufferance. California’s only Mexican-American congressman depends on Anglo suburbs for more than half his support, and in the state legislature the gerrymandering is even more effective; there was in 1971 only one Mexican assemblyman and no state senator. It was a system that placed high premium on the Tio Taco, or Uncle Tom.

But since Delano, there is an impatience in the barrio with old formulas and old deals and old alliances, a dissatisfaction with a diet of crumbs, a mood—more than surly, though not yet militant— undermining and finally beginning to crack the ghetto’s historic inertia. Drive down Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, a slum in the Southern California manner, street after street of tiny bungalows and parched lawns and old cars, a grid of monotony. The signs are unnoticed at first, catching the eye only after the second or third sighting, whitewashed on fences and abandoned storefronts, the paint splattered and uneven, signs painted on the run in the dark of night, “Es mejor morir de pie que vivir de rodillas”—“Better to die standing than live on your knees.” The words are those of Emiliano Zapata, but the spirit that wrote them there was fired by Cesar Chavez.

The pride that Chavez helped awaken took on a different tone in the barrio from in the vineyards. The farm workers’ movement was essentially nonviolent, an effort based on keeping and exhibiting the moral advantage. But in East Los Angeles today the tendency is to pick up life’s lessons less from Gandhi than from the blacks. Traditionally, brown and black have been hostile, each grappling for that single spot on the bottom rung of the social ladder. To the Mexican-American the Anglo world held out the bangle of assimilation, a bribe to the few that kept the many docile. Denied to blacks, assimilation for years robbed the Chicano community of a nucleus of leadership. Today the forfeiture of this newly acquired cultural awareness seems to the young Chicano a prohibitive price to pay. The new courses in social bribery are taught by the blacks.

The barrio is learning from the blacks the political sex appeal of violence. Three times in the past year East Los Angeles has erupted. The body count is still low, less than the fingers on one hand, hardly enough to merit a headline outside Los Angeles County. The official riposte is a call for more law and order. The charges of police brutality clash with the accusations of outside agitation. But beyond the rhetoric there is new attention focused on the ghetto. The vocabulary of the dispossessed is threat and riot, the Esperanto of a crisis-reacting society, italicizing the poverty and discrimination and social deprivation in a way that no funded study or government commission ever could.

Like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez stands astride history less for what he accomplished than for what he is. Like them he has forged “in the smithy of his soul,” as Joyce said, the creative consciousness of a people. He is the manifestation of la raza, less the saint his admirers make him out to be than a moral obsessive, drilling into the decay of a system that has become a mortuary of hopes.

I went back to Delano this winter, the first time in four years. There is something exquisite about rural California in January. It is the month of the rains, a clear, cold, almost refrigerated rain, invigorating as an amphetamine. The hills are so green they seem carpeted in Astroturf. Peacocks preen by the side of the road. The wail of a train whistle, almost unheard since childhood, pierces the valley. In Delano there was a semblance of peace. On Main Street the bumper stickers that once said “Boycott Grapes” or “Buy California Grapes” were faded and peeling, like scar tissue from a fight everyone said they wished to forget. Out past the Voice of America transmitters on the Garces Highway, hard by the municipal dump, UFWOC has a new headquarters complex called Forty Acres. There is a gas station and an office and miscellaneous dilapidated buildings. What struck me most was how quiet it was. Underneath that vast empty sky at Forty Acres, even the lettuce strike was discussed with as little fervor as the weather. It was as if after five years of continuous combat everyone had come down with an attack of rhetorical laryngitis. Downtown there is talk of diversification, of attracting industry to Delano, of an industrial park. I was told about the labor pool—20 percent unemployment in the winter—and how a one-crop town needs to get into other things. The Chamber of Commerce and the city council have established the Delano Economic Expansion Project (DEEP) to lure industry into the area, and hired the former manager of the Hanford, California, Chamber of Commerce to head it up. “One thing Cesar Chavez did for us,” he says. “In Hanford I spent a whole lot of time trying to get people to know where Hanford is. In Delano I haven’t had to do that.” There was one other thing I noticed in Delano. I didn’t know if it was a DEEP project or not. The sign on the outskirts of town used to say, “Hungry? Tired? Car Trouble? Need Gas? Stop in Delano.” There is a new sign now out on Highway 99. It says, “DELANO. WELCOME ANY-TIME.” □