The Madness of Cesar Chavez

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

Sakuma / AP

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.

The ranchers underestimated Chavez,” a stunned local observer of the historic Delano grape strike told Dunne; “they thought he was just another dumb Mex.” Such a sentiment fueled opinions of Chavez, not just among the valley’s grape growers—hardworking men, none of them rich by any means—but among many of his most powerful admirers, although they spoke in very different terms. Chavez’s followers—among them mainline Protestants, socially conscious Jews, Berkeley kids, white radicals who were increasingly rootless as the civil-rights movement transformed into the black-power movement—saw him as a profoundly good man. But they also understood him as a kind of idiot savant, a noble peasant who had risen from the agony of stoop labor and was mysteriously instilled with the principles and tactics of union organizing. In fact he’d been a passionate and tireless student of labor relations for a decade before founding the UFW, handpicked to organize Mexican Americans for the Community Service Organization, a local outfit under the auspices of no less a personage than Saul Alinsky, who knew Chavez well and would advise him during the grape strike. From Alinsky, and from Fred Ross, the CSO founder, Chavez learned the essential tactic of organizing: the person-by-person, block-by-block building of a coalition, no matter how long it took, sitting with one worker at a time, hour after hour, until the tide of solidarity is so high, no employer can defeat it.

Chavez, like all the great ’60s figures, was a man of immense personal style. For a hundred reasons—some cynical, some not—he and Robert Kennedy were drawn to each other. The Kennedy name had immense appeal to the workers Chavez was trying to cultivate; countless Mexican households displayed photographs of JFK, whose assassination they understood as a Catholic martyrdom rather than an act of political gun violence. In turn, Chavez’s cause offered Robert Kennedy a chance to stand with oppressed workers in a way that would not immediately inflame his family’s core constituency, among them working-class Irish Americans who felt no enchantment with the civil-rights causes that RFK increasingly embraced. The Hispanic situation was different. At the time of the grape strike, Mexican American immigration was not on anyone’s political radar. The overwhelming majority of California’s population was white, and the idea that Mexican workers would compete for anyone’s good job was unheard-of. The San Joaquin Valley farms—and the worker exploitation they had historically engendered—were associated more closely with the mistreatment of white Okies during the Great Depression than with the plight of any immigrant population.

Kennedy—his mind, like Chavez’s, always on the political promise of a great photograph—flew up to Delano in March 1968, when Chavez broke his 25-day fast, which he had undertaken not as a hunger strike, but as penance for some incidents of UFW violence. In a Mass held outside the union gas station where Chavez had fasted, the two were photographed, sitting next to Chavez’s wife and his mantilla-wearing mother, taking Communion together (“Senator, this is probably the most ridiculous request I ever made in my life,” said a desperate cameraman who’d missed the shot; “but would you mind giving him a piece of bread?”). Three months later, RFK was shot in Los Angeles, and a second hagiographic photograph was taken of the leader with a Mexican American. A young busboy named Juan Romero cradled the dying senator in his arms, his white kitchen jacket and dark, pleading eyes lending the picture an urgency at once tragic and political: The Third of May recast in a hotel kitchen. The United Farm Workers began to seem like Kennedy’s great unfinished business. The family firm might have preferred that grieving for Bobby take the form of reconsidering Teddy’s political possibilities, but in fact much of it was channeled, instead, into boycotting grapes.

That historic grape boycott eventually ended with a rousing success: three-year union contracts binding the Delano growers and the farmworkers. After that, the movement drifted out of my life and consciousness, as it did—I now realize—for millions of other people. I remember clearly the night my mother remarked (in a guarded way) to my father that the union had now switched its boycott from grapes to … lettuce. “Lettuce?” he squawked, and then burst out in mean laughter. I got the joke. What was Chavez going to do now, boycott each of California’s agricultural products, one at a time for five years each? We’d be way into the 21st century by the time they got around to zucchini. And besides, things were changing—in the world, in Berkeley, and (in particular, I thought) at the Flanagans’. Things that had appeared revolutionary and appealing in the ’60s were becoming weird or ugly in the ’70s. People began turning inward. My father, stalwart Vietnam War protester and tear-gasee, turned his concern to writing an endless historical novel about 18th-century Ireland. My mother stopped worrying so much about the liberation of other people and cut herself into the deal: she left her card table outside the Berkeley Co-op and went back to work. I too found other pursuits. Sitting in my room with the cat and listening over and over to Carly Simon’s No Secrets album—while staring with Talmudic concentration at its braless cover picture—was at least as absorbing as shaking the Huelga can and fretting about Mexican children’s vaccination schedules had once been. Everyone sort of moved on.

I didn’t really give any thought to the UFW again until the night of my mother’s death. At the end of that terrible day, when my sister and I returned from the hospital to our parents’ house, we looked through the papers on my mother’s kitchen desk, and there among the envelopes from the many, many charities she supported (she sent each an immediate albeit very small check) was one bearing a logo I hadn’t seen in years: the familiar black-and-red Huelga eagle. I smiled and took it home with me. I wrote a letter to the UFW, telling about my mom and enclosing a check, and suddenly I was back.

Re-upping with the 21st-century United Farm Workers was fantastic. The scope of my efforts was so much larger than before (they encouraged me to e-blast their regular updates to everyone in my address book, which of course I did) and the work so, so much less arduous—no sitting around in parking lots haranguing people about grapes. I never got off my keister. Plus, every time a new UFW e-mail arrived—the logo blinking, in a very new-millennium way, “Donate now!”—and I saw the pictures of farmworkers doing stoop labor in the fields, and the stirring photographs of Cesar Chavez, I felt close to my lost mother and connected to her: here I am, Mom, still doing our bit for the union.

And then one morning a few years later, I stepped out onto the front porch in my bathrobe, picked up the Los Angeles Times, and saw a headline: “Farmworkers Reap Little as Union Strays From Its Roots.” It was the first article in a four-part series by a Times reporter named Miriam Pawel, and from the opening paragraph, I was horrified.

I learned that while the UFW brand still carried a lot of weight in people’s minds—enough to have built a pension plan of $100 million in assets but with only a few thousand retirees who qualified—the union had very few contracts with California growers, the organization was rife with Chavez nepotism, and the many UFW-funded business ventures even included an apartment complex in California built with non-union labor. I took this news personally. I felt ashamed that I had forwarded so many e-mails to so many friends, all in the service, somehow, of keeping my mother’s memory and good works alive, and all to the ultimate benefit—as it turned out—not of the workers in the fields (whose lives were in some ways worse than they had been in the ’60s), but rather of a large, shadowy, and now morally questionable organization. But at least, I told myself, none of this has in any way impugned Cesar himself: he’d been dead more than a decade before the series was published. His own legacy was unblighted.

Or so it seemed, until my editor sent me a copy of The Union of Their Dreams, Pawel’s exhaustively researched, by turns sympathetic and deeply shocking, investigation of Chavez and his movement, and in particular of eight of the people who worked most closely with him. Through her in-depth interviews with these figures—among them a prominent attorney who led the UFW legal department, a minister who was one of Chavez’s closest advisers, and a young farmworker who had dedicated his life to the cause—Pawel describes the reality of the movement, not just during the well-studied and victorious period that made it famous, but during its long, painful transformation to what it is today. Her story of one man and his movement is a story of how the ’60s became the ’70s.

To understand Chavez, you have to understand that he was grafting together two life philosophies that were, at best, an idiosyncratic pairing. One was grounded in union-organizing techniques that go back to the Wobblies; the other emanated directly from the mystical Roman Catholicism that flourishes in Mexico and Central America and that Chavez ardently followed. He didn’t conduct “hunger strikes”; he fasted penitentially. He didn’t lead “protest marches”; he organized peregrinations in which his followers—some crawling on their knees—arrayed themselves behind the crucifix and effigies of the Virgin of Guadalupe. His desire was not to lift workers into the middle class, but to bind them to one another in the decency of sacrificial poverty. He envisioned the little patch of dirt in Delano—the “Forty Acres” that the UFW had acquired in 1966 and that is now a National Historic Landmark—as a place where workers could build shrines, pray, and rest in the shade of the saplings they had tended together while singing. Like most ’60s radicals—of whatever stripe—he vastly overestimated the appeal of hard times and simple living; he was not the only Californian of the time to promote the idea of a Poor People’s Union, but as everyone from the Symbionese Liberation Army to the Black Panthers would discover, nobody actually wants to be poor. With this Christ-like and infinitely suffering approach to some worldly matters, Chavez also practiced the take-no-prisoners, balls-out tactics of a Chicago organizer. One of his strategies during the lettuce strike was causing deportations: he would alert the immigration authorities to the presence of undocumented (and therefore scab) workers and get them sent back to Mexico. As the ’70s wore on, all of this—the fevered Catholicism and the brutal union tactics—coalesced into a gospel with fewer and fewer believers. He moved his central command from the Forty Acres, where he was in constant contact with workers and their families—and thus with the realities and needs of their lives—and took up residence in a weird new headquarters.

Located in the remote foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains, the compound Chavez would call La Paz centered on a moldering and abandoned tuberculosis hospital and its equally ravaged outbuildings. In the best tradition of charismatic leaders left alone with their handpicked top command, he became unhinged. This little-known turn of events provides the compelling final third of Pawel’s book. She describes how Chavez, the master spellbinder, himself fell under the spell of a sinister cult leader, Charles Dederich, the founder of Synanon, which began as a tough-love drug-treatment program and became—in Pawel’s gentle locution—“an alternative lifestyle community.” Chavez visited Dederich’s compound in the Sierras (where women routinely had their heads shaved as a sign of obedience) and was impressed. Pawel writes:

Chavez envied Synanon’s efficient operation. The cars all ran, the campus was immaculate, the organization never struggled for money.

He was also taken with a Synanon practice called “The Game,” in which people were put in the center of a small arena and accused of disloyalty and incompetence while a crowd watched their humiliation. Chavez brought the Game back to La Paz and began to use it on his followers, among them some of the UFW’s most dedicated volunteers. In a vast purge, he exiled or fired many of them, leaving wounds that remain tender to this day. He began to hold the actual farmworkers in contempt: “Every time we look at them,” he said during a tape-recorded meeting at La Paz, “they want more money. Like pigs, you know. Here we’re slaving, and we’re starving and the goddamn workers don’t give a shit about anything.”

Chavez seemed to have gone around the bend. He decided to start a new religious order. He flew to Manila during martial law in 1977 and was officially hosted by Ferdinand Marcos, whose regime he praised, to the horror and loud indignation of human-rights advocates around the world.

By the time of Chavez’s death, the powerful tide of union contracts for California farmworkers, which the grape strike had seemed to augur, had slowed to the merest trickle. As a young man, Chavez had set out to secure decent wages and working conditions for California’s migrant workers; anyone taking a car trip through the “Salad Bowl of the World” can see that for the most part, these workers have neither.

For decades, Chavez has been almost an abstraction, a collection of gestures and images (the halting speech, the plaid shirt, the eagerness to perform penance for the smallest transgressions) suggesting more an icon than a human being. Here in California, Chavez has reached civic sainthood. Indeed, you can trace a good many of the giants among the state’s shifting pantheon by looking at the history of one of my former elementary schools. When Berkeley became the first city in the United States to integrate its school system without a court order, my white friends and I were bused to an institution in the heart of the black ghetto called Columbus School. In the fullness of time, its name was changed to Rosa Parks School; the irony of busing white kids to a school named for Rosa Parks never seemed fully unintentional to me. Now this school has a strong YouTube presence for the videos of its Cesar Chavez Day play, an annual event in which bilingual first-graders dressed as Mexican farmworkers carry Sí, Se Puede signs and sing “De Colores.” The implication is that just as Columbus and Parks made their mark on America, so did Chavez make his lasting mark on California.

In fact, no one could be more irrelevant to the California of today, and particularly to its poor, Hispanic immigrant population, than Chavez. He linked improvement of workers’ lives to a limitation on the bottomless labor pool, but today, low-wage, marginalized, and exploited workers from Mexico and Central America number not in the tens of thousands, as in the ’60s, but in the millions. Globalization is the epitome of capitalism, and nowhere is it more alive than in California. When I was a child in the ’60s, professional-class families did not have a variety of Hispanic workers—maids, nannies, gardeners—toiling in and around their households. Most faculty wives in Berkeley had a once-a-week “cleaning lady,” but those women were blacks, not Latinas. A few of the posher families had gardeners, but those men were Japanese, and they were employed for their expertise in cultivating California plants, not for their willingness to “mow, blow, and go.”

Growing up here when I did meant believing your state was the most blessed place in the world. We were certain—both those who lived in the Republican, Beach Boys paradises of Southern California and those who lived in the liberal enclaves of Berkeley and Santa Monica—that our state would always be able to take care of its citizens. The working class would be transformed (by dint of the aerospace industry and the sunny climate) into the most comfortable middle class in the world, with backyard swimming pools and self-starting barbecue grills for everyone. The poor would be taken care of, too, whether that meant boycotting grapes, or opening libraries until every rough neighborhood had books (and Reading Lady volunteers) for everyone.

But all of that is gone now.

The state is broken, bankrupt, mean. The schools are a misery, and the once-famous parks are so crowded on weekends that you might as well not go, unless you arrive at first light to stake your claim. The vision of civic improvement has given way to self-service and consumer indulgence. Where the mighty Berkeley Co-op once stood on Shattuck and Cedar—where I once rattled the can for Chavez, as shoppers (each one a part owner) went in to buy no-frills, honestly purveyed, and often unappealing food—is now a specialty market of the Whole Foods variety, with an endless olive bar and a hundred cheeses.

When I took my boy up the state to visit Cesar’s old haunts, we drove into the Tehachapi Mountains to see the compound at La Paz, now home to the controversial National Farm Workers Service Center, which sits on a war chest of millions of dollars. The place was largely deserted and very spooky. In Delano, the famous Forty Acres, site of the cooperative gas station and of Chavez’s 25-day fast, was bleak and unvisited. We found a crust of old snow on Chavez’s grave in Keene, and a cold wind in Delano. We spent the night in Fresno, and my hopes even for the Blossom Trail were low. But we followed the 99 down to Fowler, tacked east toward Sanger, and then, without warning, there we were.

“Stop the car,” Conor said, and although I am usually loath to walk a farmer’s land without permission, we had to step out into that cloud of pale color. We found ourselves in an Arthur Rackham illustration: the boughs bending over our heads were heavy with white blossoms, the ground was covered in moss that was in places deep green and in others brown, like worn velvet. I kept turning back to make sure the car was still in sight, but then I gave up my last hesitation and we pushed deeper and deeper into the orchard, until all we could see were the trees. At 65 degrees, the air felt chilly enough for a couple of Californians to keep their sweaters on. In harvest season, the temperature will climb to over 100 degrees many days, and the rubbed velvet of the spring will have given way to a choking dust. Almost none of the workers breathing it will have a union contract, few will be here legally, and the deals they strike with growers will hinge on only one factor: how many other desperate people need work. California agriculture has always had a dark side. But—whether you’re eating a ripe piece of fruit in your kitchen or standing in a fairy-tale field of blossoms on a cool spring morning—forgetting about all of that is so blessedly easy. Chavez shunned nothing more fervently than the easy way; and nothing makes me feel further away from the passions and certainty of my youth than my eagerness, now, to take it.