Introduction To Cesar Chavez
The introduction to Cesar Chavez usually involves road directions. This is how to get to Cesar Chavez Boulevard, and neither the director or the receiver of the instructions knows anything of the man the road was named for. Cesar Chavez had his day in the sun, he had some great successes, and will always be a name to be remembered in both Chicano History and in the history of the American labor movement. And he had roads all over the country named after him. But few today who didn’t actually live through the history of the Farm Labor Movement actually know much about him, or his American Farm Workers Union.
Then as now, in the mid 1960’s and 70’s, farm workers were predominantly Mexican American. In California the farm workers from the Great Depression, the Okies, and the Arkies, and the Texies etc. had moved up the social ladder to other things, or if still in Agriculture were in management. WW2 had brought in the era of the “Braceros” legal workers from Mexico, and the field turned from redneck to brown overnight.
Cesar Chavez’s family lost their small family farm in Arizona during the Great Depression, like millions of other American Farmers. So they loaded up the truck and moved, not to Beverly Hills, but to the Central Valley of California, one of the most fertile and productive agricultural areas in the world. This is where and when the story of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers begins.
The United Farm Workers in a very real way was Cesar Chavez…It was his charisma, his way of touching the people, his astuteness and political sense that made it possible. He joined the Filipino farm workers to his cause, and was in many respects the consummate diplomat. The tactic of non-violence, he learned from Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.
And the times were with him as well. The information age was just beginning and the TV news covered his events. The press was very friendly, after all he was embraced and supported by the Kennedy’s, especially Robert Kennedy, a media darling if there ever was one. People were tired of discrimination and racism as well, and while the Age of Aquarius would soon engender it’s own backlash, The citizens of the United States were a kindlier and more gentle sort than in the past. But all this could not last.
In an absolute sense you would have to say in the organizing and long term success of a farm workers union Cesar Chavez had little affect on Agriculture. Today from a height of 50.000 union members in the 1970’s there are only about 6,000 left. There are internal reasons for the decline, but the external ones are what sounded a death knoll for the Union Grape Pickers and manual agriculture workers of California.
The history of farm labor ranges from a farmer and his family doing most of the work themselves and perhaps hiring a few hands or a small crew to help with an extra bountiful harvest, to systems of control, from peonage, and other forms of debt bondage, different takes on the plantation system, and actual slavery. It certainly did not lend itself to Unionizing. The work force was fluid, ever changing, profits were unpredictable, and the work, of course, was seasonal.
In the case of almost anything to do with Mexicans and Chicanos, Tejanos etc. immigration almost always makes an appearance within the issue. With the United Farm Workers the connection is to millions and millions of workers competing for thousands of jobs, that is if you are going to include Mexico and Latin America. If the politicians cared to, they could at any time open up the floodgates and break the union at any time.
This is not something you hear too much about, but Cesar Chavez et al, were profoundly anti immigration from Mexico and frequently were on the phone to the Border Patrol.
The mythology that because people share a common heritage and language their interests always coincide, is one myth that we can do without. Among many others. But, some would say, politics is mostly all mythology, and they would be right. So is history, for that matter.
In the movie “Cesar Chavez” we have a serviceable cinematic record of some very interesting history. Changes were made for the better, Air tractors and dusters became much more careful of who they sprayed and with what. There are horror stories connected with agricultural chemicals and they are true. Growers and applicators would spray their workers, passersbys, innocent bystanders, and even themselves. They would be right out in the fields checking things out, before the planes had even buzzed away, all the while puffing on unfiltered cancer sticks.
In many ways people were macho insane in those times, but at least they weren’t staring at little bitty phones all day, pounding them with their thumbs.
There are many stories about Cesar Chavez. Some are legend, some myth, some apocryphal, but many have the ring of truth about them, To most Americans even of his time, the man was more image, and projection than real. The one famous person that I can think that people know about, but of the man himself, know very little, is Abraham Lincoln. Some people are just hard to know. Hard to say what is going on inside of them.
From my admittedly limited research, the Cesar Chavez image has been protected and embellished where ever possible. The same thing has been done to many leaders before. Where ever possible I think that political figures should not be turned into religious icons, but it happens. Best we deal with our leaders as they are and were, as they say, warts and all. But they all go through a lot of processing.
There is a lot of oral history on Cesar Chavez, but that only goes so far. Oral history becomes lost in time and with any break in tradition. But as people do love to talk, perhaps more can be unearthed, while there is still time.