For some reason or another, the time frame for the story of Cesar Chavez would seem more appropriate in the thirties rather than the sixties. Perhaps it is because most of us think that all that “labor stuff” happened in the thirties and that such exploitation doesn’t exist anymore.
Yet there is a man, still living, who grew up in the most deprivation possible, in the thirties, and continued to fight for the migrant workers as if the thirties were never over.
The possibilities of migrant workers confronting growers to better their lot were laughable, as the growers were powerful and well organized. The workers were virtually helpless. Chavez had persistently built up the union though. Even if it seemed to be an exercise in futility, his experience with CSO (Community Service Organization), as national director, helped prepare him for the struggle ahead. He had already learned of the tactical advantages of non-violence. He was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Emeliano Zapata, as well as Jesus Christ. Most of his supporters and members were of the idealists group, not very powerful. Chavez himself had only a seventh grade education, acquired in over 30 schools as the family went from place to place. Lack of a formal education was not important to Chavez. He was innately capable of learning swiftly, and had the added asset of being charismatic, both on and off television.
Chavez gave up his job with CSO as it wasn’t accomplishing what he wanted – a union. However his time was not wasted as Saul Alinsky was founder of CSO,1 and no doubt influenced Chavez a great deal. Alinsky was always a man for fighting causes.
Chavez was in good company at an early age. Alinsky’s background was backing the CSO. But money was short, and a raffle was held to pay the first month’s rent on the office space. Some chairs and a desk were donated by a liberal
Democrat from Palo Alto, California who was interested in their endeavors. This person was none other than Alan Cranston, later a U.S. Senator from California.
Of Course, Chavez was motivated by the grave injustices he witnessed and lived as a boy. His dream was the union that would remedy all of these unjust social conditions. However, instead of being a bellicose and “pushy” leader, Chavez is very quiet, but convincing. In 1969 there were 2,200,000 Mexican-Americans in California,2 many of whom were farm workers. Eighty-four percent of the Valley farm workers earned less than the federal poverty level amount of $3100 . For example, in Fresco County, more than eighty percent of the welfare cases were from farm families. Cesar Chavez became the spokesman for these families.
As the United Farm Workers grew, it reached 50,000 members by 1968. Typical of Chavez, he would not allow people in the union to be identified with numbers. He felt it was too cold and impersonal, even though it cost more money for record keeping and so forth. When Cesar Chavez worked for Saul Alinsky as CSO, he complained about raises too much, and never put in for meal expenses reimbursement while on the road. Obviously, Mr. Chavez was not in this for the money, at least not for himself.
Chavez is like no union man that we know of in America. He is most certainly not like the stereotype we are used to; the cigar chomping mogul dressed in expensive suits, manicured fingernails, and a flashy jewelry. These types worship power and abuse it with complete abandon.
Now let’s take a look at Cesar. His wardrobe looks like thrift shop circa 1938, and probably is. His clothes are clean, though, and he is clean cut himself. This leader comes up with remarks such as, “A leader who does not know how to listen does not know how to lead.”
People who have gotten close to Chavez notice how his eyes are very responsive, and how he speaks to people in a way, with his eyes. Cesar says, “People know what they want. And what they don’t want… it’s a case of staying with them and keeping your eyes and ears open … and they tell you! They don’t tell you in so many words, but they tell you with their actions. They will not so much as spell it out for you. They never have a clear way of doing that. The never write it down for you. They never hold your hand. It’s never tangible, but if you listen to it, it comes… Once you begin to ‘lead’ the people, to force them, then you make mistakes. Once you begin to feel that you are the ‘leader’, then you begin to stop being a real leader. Then a reverse process starts. The ‘leader’ has less and less time for the people. He depends more on himself, he begins to play hunches, to play the long shots. He loses touch with the people”. Cesar goes on to explain how a huelga (strike) comes about, the people in the union “let him know”.3
Cesar had acquired the appearance of the field peasant and was well aware of it, and for purposes of publicity continued to wear this type of clothing.
Soon he came to be “worshipped”, not really perhaps, but it was quite a sight to see him walking down a rural path with hundreds of workers behind him. The growers underestimated him. They soon learned that Chavez was someone to be reckoned with. One grower remarked that Chavez’ secret is that he has the utter loyalty of the Mexican workers, plus his appeal is primarily racial and to some extent religious.4 All of the growers soon agreed that it had been their mistake to think of Chavez as another “dumb Mexican”.
Stories circulated as to how Cesar had been offered big money to betray the union, but of course no amount of money could have gotten him to do that. Not Cesar Chavez.
In Cesar’s office are pictures of Gandhi and Zapata, hardly the kind of pictures one usually expects to see in a union leader’s quarters. Yet he was offered money, property and prestige if he would agree to serve on the board of directors of this or that multi-million dollar corporation. Cesar spurned all of them. He preferred to struggle, and had invited students and civil rights workers to help picket in strikes. However, the students and civil rights workers bolted when the United Farm Workers decided to go ahead and merge with AFL-CIO. They considered it a sell-out, but Chevas maintains that it is what the workers wanted and that they should have more faith in the workers.
Chavez is a shrewd person in that he recognized quickly how dumb it is to glamorize a bunch of poor people as being all saints. He said that this is as bad as feeling sorry for them, as these kinds of feelings run out rather quickly and reality does not.
At the beginning of the now famous 1968 grape strike-boycott, Cesar faster and took off 35 pounds. He considered it manly to self-sacrifice. There was an altar built in the union office, and another one in the back of a truck. Cesar took only a little bullion, and on the 13th. day of fasting he went to a court matter brought about by the growers. So many people showed up that the court continued the cases as it was virtually a physical impossiblility to do so because of the crowds.5 Cesar became nearly unable to walk, but carried on until the 25th. day when he broke fast by having a piece of bread with Senator Robert Kennedy. In three months Kennedy was to be dead by assassin’s bullets. Cesar receievd a letter from the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. comparing him to Gandhi with his fasting. King had only one month to live when this was written.
Chavez had had numerous warnings himself, which he ignored. He had no bodyguards. There were reports of a contract out on Chavez of $25,000. Nothing happened. However, U.S. Treasury Agents uncovered a plot to kill Chavez on behalf of some growers in Delano, California – Cesar’s home base.
A unique situation arises in researching Chavez and the union. Most of the publicity was about the union, and not so much on Chavez. One is tempted to say that Chavez is the union, which is obviously not the case as he built it in such a way that he was the servant of the union, and while its leader he was divorced from the union. He did not control it, the workers did. The union did not control him, as no one controlled Cesar Chavez. Consequently, Chavez could come and go at will from the union and its endeavors. Actually Chavez would liked to have the time to read all of the classics in English and in Spanish. This is yet another dimension of Chavez and his mind. Recently, the Veteran’s Administration has developed research data that concludes that leaders in a group-society have more of the chemical serotinin in their brains thatn “non-leaders” (this is not true of women, however) Does someone such as Cesar Chavez have more serotinin? Higher IQ? While these are possible factors, they don’t begin to explain a Cesar Chavez.
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