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Challenging Cesar Chavez’s Reputation

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I’ve been waiting for about 5 years for Cesar Chavez’s public reputation to face serious challenge.

After Chavez’s death, he became a hero nearly on the level of Martin Luther King. Due to his fasts and his deep commitment to improving the plight of Mexican-American farmworkers, Chavez became an uncomplicated hero to progressives of all races. For the growing Mexican-American population, he became their King in the sense that he was the historical hero upon which to tie their growing identity and demands upon the body politic. Cities across the nation began naming streets after Chavez. Some even called for a national holiday to remember him, a la King.

There are very good reasons for all of this, as Chavez is the most famous Mexican-American civil rights fighter in American history. His work for the farmworkers did create a great deal of positive good for Mexican-Americans throughout the country. He and the United Farmworkers faced a tremendous amount of discrimination, from growers who didn’t care if they died in the fields from sunstroke or in the hospital from pesticide exposure to the Teamsters, who demanded they represent the farmworkers and routinely beat UFW organizers in classic thuggish fashion.

But Chavez’s public image of sainthood was built on a far more shaky foundation than King. King may have had his affairs and he was a complicated individual, but he also lived his beliefs, treated people with fundamental decency, and had a vision that truly transcended American politics. Malcolm X also lived his philosophy, living such as spartan lifestyle that his family was on the verge of poverty at the time of his murder.

On the other hand, Chavez engaged in a lot of really questionable tactics and personal behavior. I first became aware of this when reading Philip Vera Cruz’s memoir. Vera Cruz was a Filipino immigrant, like a great deal of California farm labor stretching back to the early 20th century. The Filipinos laid the organizing groundwork that the UFW built upon. But very quickly, the UFW became about the Chicano rights movement more than a broad-based farmworker union and the Filipinos were marginalized and isolated within the union. Perhaps that’s natural, but when Chavez flew to Manila to meet with Ferdinand Marcos, Vera Cruz, who was probably the leading Filipino within the UFW structure, spoke out and was ostracized from the leadership.

Slowly, over the past few years, more stories like this have become publicly known. The UFW used tactics of tremendous personal manipulation over its organizers, publicly embarrassing them and seeking to control them. Chavez brooked no opposition within his union and did not build a leadership structure to replace him. After his death, the union fell into disarray. Today, it is almost irrelevant, even in the California fields. Members of Chavez’s family fight over control of its remnants. It’s a huge disaster.

For years, following the general trend of society, all the books on the UFW and Chavez were essentially hagiographies. That has changed. Nelson Lichtenstein reviews Frank Bardacke’s new book on Chavez, the UFW, and farmworker organizing outside the UFW structure. An excerpt:

The grape boycott proved an enormous success: it generated the economic leverage that finally brought the growers to the bargaining table in 1970, it gave Chavez and his union a potent, far-flung organization that could be deployed in politics and elsewhere; and it set up a funding structure that almost always depended on outsiders for a larger proportion of the union budget than it did on dues from the membership. Chavez therefore saw the boycott rather than the strike as the union’s most effective weapon. The farm workers were fractious and unreliable; strikes were often embarrassing failures that subverted the union claim to speak on behalf of its constituency, and when they did succeed the workers might well take too many matters into their own hands. The boycott on the other hand facilitated the hyper centralization of the renamed United Farm Workers in La Paz, the Tehachapi foothill town Chavez had chosen for UFW headquarters in 1970. It would be staffed by a seemingly endless stream of Anglo volunteers who could never challenge Chavez for real influence in the union; and the boycott required that the UFW define for the liberal public a farm worker population that was far more downtrodden victim than empowered and prosperous worker, even when the latter became the more accurate embodiment of farm worker dreams and realities.

The irony here is considerable. A tactical innovation necessary to sustain farm union influence in the vineyards during the late 1960s would now become the organizing principle around which the entire organization was reshaped and an actual obstacle to the rebirth of the union when farm worker militancy had a genuine renaissance late in the 1970s. Bardacke offers a revealing story exemplifying this dynamic in his chapter recounting the union’s 1974 “Campaign Against Illegals.” Then the UFW both drew up lists of undocumented workers for deportation by the Migra (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and established its own Minutemanlike border patrol in the Arizona desert, the latter run by Cesar’s cousin Manuel, whom Ganz called “the evil twin in a Shakespearean drama.” The UFW claimed that it was trying to get Mexican strike breakers out of the fields, but with at least a hundred thousand undocumented workers in California agriculture— and many more to come—this was an impossible task, even if it were not so politically and socially divisive, breeding hostility to the union among thousands of potential recruits.

Why this disastrous gambit? Bardacke argues that after the Teamsters and the growers had conspired to push a badly disorganized UFW out of many vineyards in 1973, Chavez wanted to restart the grape boycott. Blaming the undocumented provided both an excuse for UFW strike failures and a fresh rationale for UFW fund-raising appeals throughout the country. Many within the union objected to this disastrous program, and the UFW would eventually come to champion the rights of undocumented immigrants, but in the fields and migrant Mexican communities, the whole affair bred distrust and dissention.

There is room for the pendulum on Chavez to swing the other way. We don’t want to demonize him, not that I think Bardacke is doing that (though I haven’t yet read the book). But we are past due for a measured look at Chavez. We can accept his warts, but the warts are very real and need to be accounted for in any discussion of him. I recognize that some Mexican-Americans might find this offensive as Chavez’s beatified image is important to a larger political project, but avoiding his complexities serves no one in the end.

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