Cesar Chavez

Tell us what you did
to help Cesar's cause

"Farmworkers Teach Us Young Americans How to Recover Soul and Democracy!"

Through Blase Bonpane, a friend from Denver who was then onstaff at La Paz as editor of El Malcriado, I was accepted as a volunteer on-staff in early 1972. When I arrived, I helped w/ the quickly hand-written letters that we took down to churches in LA to get signatures on after their worship services. Those became part of the reported 1,000,000 letters arriving in truck after mail truck at Sen. Bob Dole’s CREEP Office in Washington, Richard Nixon’s (Campaign to Re-Elect the President) to turn back the Nixon NLRB’s extra-legal attempt to apply the Taft-Hartley Act to agricultural labor secondary boycotts. UFW Attorney Jerry Cohen, who I was around all the time at La Paz, soon arrived, reporting that Nixon’s people had caved to the UFW campaign.  Cesar, as would always happen, held an instructional and celebrative victory rally, with the in-house farmworker musicians providing spirited vocal and guitar backup.

One of Cesar’s observations as he took on his teaching role, reflecting on this the first of the UFW’s campaigns that had to directly having to take on the federal government, was that though many people thought the people of the United States no longer had a collective conscience, again that had been proven to be untrue. He was very articulate and open, in a practical and inspiring way, with staff of every shade of religious belief or non-belief, about how the faith-based commitment of the UFW movement had provided the core of proving that the national will to have a more just democracy was very much alive and well.

Dolores Huerta also reported in at those La Paz staff meetings, usually on her work at various western state legislatures, seeking to protect and promote farmworker gains against anti-farmworker legislation seeking to emerge in various state capitals.  As a mother who somehow managed all this while rearing her large family, she was charismatic, inspirational and adventurous.

At first I worked for Leroy Chatfield in Benefits section. He would later be Governor Jerry Brown’s chief staff-person at helping develop and win passage for the first California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The Benefits office space was a very rudimentary, open area where we volunteer staff personally hand-typed each check payment for health care reimbursement for individual farmworker families. (I believe it was Ralph Magaña who was at the next desk as he and I worked at that together.) Cesar, coming through talking with Leroy one of those first mornings there, struck me as having the most charismatic personality of any man I had met. It was 4 years since his first long fast, 1968, in Delano. The first contracts, mainly in grapes and lettuce, had been won 2 years earlier in 1970, and the business at hand was maintaining and servicing those contracts while strategizing and organizing for their renewal and expansion.

Marshall Ganz, now teaching organizing classes at Harvard, was our staff ‘boss’ when it came to work on campaigns. The work schedule at La Paz was a 24/7 schedule, with a little bit more sleeping time built in on Sunday mornings. I enjoyed lots the daily ritual of staff lunch (delicious basic tortillas, beans, veggies, etc.), sitting there watching and listening day after day to Fred Ross, Dolores Huerta, and Richard Chavez enjoying food and conversation together, some of it strategic. The community and atmosphere, overall, the culture and character of the farmworkers, had a wonderful consonance for me with my Kansas farm and family background, with experienced insight and how-to’s for working on issues with some key similarities to the ones I’d grown up with with my own parents, especially with my father who was both farmer and farm organizer.

Soon after I arrived, we on staff sang ‘Las Mañanitas’ at c. 4a on Cesar and Helen’s porch, for his 45th birthday. Cesar came out on the porch combing his hair and acting like we were surprising them and he’d just awakened.  Then we enjoyed some small cakes and little cups of tequila inside, celebrating with the family, who’d obviously been up for awhile.  Most of Cesar and Helen’s kids lived there, working also on volunteer staff.

An interesting day or two was the visit of the original grape-strikers who had endured the long battle of the 1965 to 1970 grape strike, with its successful national boycott and the first agricultural labor contracts in American history.  Some of them had hopped the freight trains out of Delano which were loaded with grapes being shipped to cities in the east and in Canada,  their way of gathering intelligence on the key distribution routes and destinations around which the national boycott was launched in support of the strike. Passionate, some of their leaders were demanding that as the UFW got more administratively structured, their militance and sacrifices not be forgotten.  Cesar spent a lot of personal time with them, reminiscing with them and encouraging them, amid his busy schedule.

In the year after the first contracts were signed, the Union learned from an ex-convict and police informant who came up as a guest at La Paz for a little while, of a $25,000 assassination contract put out on Cesar’s life.  It must have been at an outdoor potluck one beautiful evening at La Paz that I watched him and Cesar conversing together just back from the rest of the staff spread out on a small hillside patch of green there. By then Cesar had obtained two well-trained German Shepherd guardians, who with their leash chains clinking, accompanied him everywhere at La Paz.  They were perfectly quiet, calm, never barked, just walking with him, or resting quietly beside him, always available.  He named them Huelga and Boycott.  In the UFW’s strict code of non-violence, none of the La Paz security staff at the gate or accompanying Cesar were allowed to have weapons, but I had the feeling that Cesar was shrewd enough to avoid an assassination such as had happened to Martin Luther King four years earlier.

Within a month or so, Cesar called me in solo one night, to prep me for moving down to Delano to work in the office at Forty Acres, doing land ownership research.  I did that for a number of weeks, living on the same $5.00 a week ‘stipend’ all the staff, including Cesar, enjoyed, in a somewhat habitable little farmworker-rented house in Delano.  I loved the work, the inspiring community, the sense of collective dedication and success that pervaded the UFW community and culture, plus the time to myself in the evening to write songs.  All of it came at the right time for me, when many of us young Americans were very much questioning the future of our own country. Vision, hope and reality were coming together for us, hard-won and learned from Cesar and the UFW leaders and members, a labor community vibrant in the midst of the democracy that for decade after decade had permitted their average life span to top out at 47 years.

One weekend I wangled some time for myself to get down to LA to take some songs I had written earlier, to share with a singer/songwriter/guitarist I knew who’d worked in the New Christy Minstrels and in The First Edition with Kenny Rogers. What got clear to me right away was how much more I was enjoying my life and work in Delano than he was his in Hollywood!

I did lots of courthouse land ownership records research, in Kern (Bakersfield) and Tulare counties, driving out to record the kinds of grapes and crops being grown on the various vineyards land land holdings under UFW contract in Kern and Tulare counties.  My UFW transportation was a valiant old donated light blue Valiant, with a shot throw-out bearing beating endlessly around in its clutch assembly. In it I thumped around in the heat, dust and across the irrigation canals of the big valley, where my uncle Francis, during the Depression, had come out as a young man to find work as a farmworker. (He soon decided that, even in the Depression, being an Eastern Kansas farmer was a more promising future.) Every morning the Delano staff met, reported in, strategized and headed out to our research and organizing tasks.  Manuel Chavez, Cesar’s irreverently clownish cousin who was also very practical and strategic, worked with our Delano staff too some of the time, there at those morning meetings. Attorney Jerry Cohen was there some of the time too, interested of course in the contract enforcement and in any possible intra-family land-ownership changes that might be used to try to allege non-applicability of previously signed contracts.. (A Catholic former priest who worked with us there would later be a key volunteer on the national literacy crusade in Nicaragua the year following the Sandinista revolution of 1979.)  Once my boss at Delano sent me out on an interesting assignment. I posed as a Kansas agricultural student on a research study,  to seek to gather intelligence on future land-use planning, interviewing the owner of one of the larger ranches/vineyards in the area.

After some weeks in Delano, I was getting ready to return to Denver which was then home base. To help me earn some travel money, the Union got me a temporary job as a field hand in a large (Tenneco Corporation) vineyard under UFW contract not far out of Delano. I lived in the Filipino labor camp there, where the older retired workers, who had never made enough money to return to the Phillippines to marry and have a family, cooked up basic, delicious food for us after the long, terrifically hot work days. We hand-trimmed our way vine by vine down miles of vineyard rows, breathing sulphur dust through bandannas. I began to appreciate what it really meant to work hundreds of grapevines daily in someone else’s vineyard, and I felt grateful for the call-and-response work songs across the rows by some Arab workers, mocking the boredom and difficult conditions.

Perhaps the same day that I finished that job and returned to Forty Acres, a current of excitement swept through all the UFW network. Cesar was moving the entire staff to Phoenix overnight. He was already there, three of four days into what became a 24-day fast, Ghandi-style. The UFW was launching a recall campaign against the Arizona governor, and I believe it was in that campaign that the famous “Sí se puede” chant was launched, which Barack Obama advantageously brought into his first presidential campaign decades later. The Arizona legislature had passed a stiff, anti-farmworker-organizing law, despite organized excellent public opposition and lobbying against its passage. Cesar, not eating, was being hosted in a side room of a Catholic elementary school and parish not far from where Phoenix’ big pro-sports field is today. We got there late, coming in about midnight in a van from La Paz.  On a table in the school cafeteria were notes left from quickly prepared speeches delivered in person at a press conference earlier that evening, by Coretta Scott King and presidential candidate George McGovern. Joan Baez would also arrive later on in the fast, in support.

Spurred on by the jolt of energy that comes from your core leader’s decision to not eat until the campaign has succeeded, we used the “Sí Se Puede” motto as we spread out through the city and state (on my way back to Colorado I went also with a volunteer up to Flagstaff to the University there) to gather publicity and signatures for the recall campaign. I understand that the effort over the next few months helped reshape the grassroots base of Arizona politics for years to come. Despite Governor (Williams?) being able to hold on to his office by his toenails, If I’m remembering correctly a subsequent scandal shortened his state-level career.

Inspired by Cesar, Dolores, Fred and the farmworkers, six years later I took on spearheading the sponsoring committee that created the first Alinsky-style community organization in Denver, working initially with the I.A.F., the same resource group that, through Fred Ross, had trained Cesar twenty years earlier. Decades later, the resulting Metropolitan Organizations for People still thrives as Denver’s premier community organizing group.

Nine years after Cesar’s death, I had an opportunity in the summer to return to La Paz and to Forty Acres in Delano, accompanied by my 13-year-old son Jeff, to update on the UFW’s evolution, as part of research for a book related to family farmers and farmworkers. UFW staff members Danny and Nancy Romero graciously hosted us, and Cesar’s son Paul Chavez generously gave us a couple of hours of his time to catch up on how the UFW had evolved.

Jeff and I as volunteers had the privilege of helping that weekend to take out and help catalog the items left in Cesar’s office, which was pretty much exactly as it had been when I worked there and how it had been at his death.  (That was as part of the work to create the new UFW training center and memorial at Cesar’s simple gravesite at La Paz. ) Jeff also helped Danny at Forty Acres by created what was apparently the first computerized version of the UFW logo. Danny also enlisted us to help at the pre-contract negotiation vigil at a furniture factory in Bakersfield, whose workers had requested that the UFW serve as their host Union, in what would be its prospective first local in an urban setting.  Jeff helped entertain vigil line volunteers with card games and card tricks and I helped with music, to pass the time amid the nice weather and boredom. (The negotiations would later result in a UFW contract at the factory.)

An aspect of who Cesar was and how he networked particularly stands out for me.  Although I was a UFW staff volunteer for a very brief time, afterward Cesar took time personally to respond with a very brief letter of solidarity and good wishes each of the (two) times I got in touch with him by letter in years afterwards—once when I was going through the experience of the military coup in Chile where I was then living and working, and again when I got married more than a decade after I worked with him in La Paz and Delano.  Like any great leader he had his share of quirks and limits, but he lived with a common, personal touch coming from his core that ignited the forces of love and sacrifice in all of us who worked with him in whatever our humble capacity—inspiring us in lifelong fashion to make the opportunities latent in our democracy work for everyone.

I was working at a press conference to launch Denver’s first cultural-and-ethnic festival network, created by a multicultural arts non-profit I had founded, when a young woman working with Denver’s Cinco de Mayo Festival came up to me with the news that Cesar had just died. After the conference, feeling rather numb, I went downtown to the 16th Street Mall to catch lunch at a restaurant with an outdoor patio, where I could sit in the sun and think. My sandwich and side dishes, including some vegetables and fruit, came on a paper plate.  After I’d eaten—I didn’t think at all about what I was doing, because I had been doing it since even before I arrived at La Paz the first time—I emptied the handful of uneaten grapes from my paper plate into the wastebasket as I got up to leave. That’s when it hit me, who we were losing.