By William Plummer Dianna Waggoner
September 05, 1988 12:00 PM

Ready to shelter the weakened leader from the unforgiving sun, a big, white, open-sided tent stood over his rocking chair in the field outside tiny Delano, Calif. The flags on the tent’s peak snapped smartly in the hot, dry breeze. Straw and gravel had been scattered on the ground to keep the dust under control, and booths offering tamales, flautas, tacos, beer and soft drinks were arrayed on one side of the field.

By 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 21, more than 6,000 people had gathered to join Cesar Chavez at the end of his 36-day, water-only fast. He had undertaken the fast to dramatize the United Farm Workers’ nearly four-year-old—and, many said, failing—boycott against the grape growers of the state. His silent struggle was one of Chavez’s most dramatic actions since he began to champion the state’s migrant farm workers 26 years ago, and there was a feeling of revival in the air. Fists shot up, there were cries of ¡Huelga! (“strike”), and, just as there had been back in the ’60s, there were celebrities: Martin Sheen, Edward James Olmos, Robert Blake, Emilio Estevez, Lou Diamond Phillips, Ethel Kennedy and three of her children. Rhythmic clapping broke out as Ethel sat to the right of Chavez’s chair and Jesse Jackson, resplendent in a starched, white Philippine work shirt, took a place at the left.

Then Cesar Chavez, 61, was there—but when the 6,000 faithful gazed upon him, they did not see the chunky Chicano orator of old. He seemed shrunken, a man of quixotic dignity who had suffered yet again for a principle, a man who had endangered his health to dramatize what he charges is a wanton use of pesticides that harm pickers, their families and even consumers. As Chavez had requested, the crowd did not applaud but sat silently as he walked painfully to the rocking chair. He also wore a white Philippine work shirt, but his head drooped, and he was supported by two burly attendants. He had lost 33 pounds from his 165-lb. frame and suffered from fever, vomiting and cramps. He sank slowly into the rocker and there, head in hands, now and then wiping a tear, sat through an hour-long Roman Catholic Mass. Near its end, a piece of bread, handed to him by Ethel Kennedy, became his first real food in five weeks.

After the service, Jackson accepted a small wooden cross from Chavez. It symbolized Jesse’s pledge to continue the fast for three days, and he in turn would pass it on to others who support La Causa. Each faster has also vowed to go without food for three days. The recipients will include Sheen, Olmos, Blake and Susan Anspach.

“Today is a special day because we bring Cesar Chavez back to the world of the living,” Kerry Kennedy, 28, told the spectators. Her father, Robert F. Kennedy, had been with Chavez when he broke his first fast, a 25-day abstinence in 1968 (a second, in 1972, lasted 24 days). After Kerry’s remarks, Jackson concluded with a speech. “The children of this valley have a right to breathe free,” he shouted. “This is an appeal of mercy. Stop the grapes and save the children!”

During his fast, Chavez lay in bed, sipping water in a white-washed building in Delano (the site of his first fast), which he and his wife, Helen, had made their temporary residence. Pictures of his heroes—Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Christ—surrounded him, and when he was not overcome by nausea, Helen would massage his aching body. The growers claim that the sprays they use on their grapes are safe and that one of the chemicals Chavez has targeted (methyl bromide) isn’t used at all. They see Chavez’s fast as egotistical showmanship from a man whose cause is dying on the vine, and the UFW union has indeed seen trouble of late. There has been disaffection from members who find Chavez a relentless taskmaster. The union has lost membership and contracts and in 1987 was rocked by a $1.7 million judgment against it brought by a vegetable grower who claimed that a UFW strike cost him a harvest. The case is on appeal.

Even loyalists had begged the aging firebrand to ease up: A few weeks ago, Kerry Kennedy and two of her siblings, fearful for his declining health, urged Chavez to end his protest. “It’s not a fast,” he said then, “unless you suffer.” Whatever else he had achieved, Cesar Chavez clearly had suffered.

—By William Plummer, with Dianna Waggoner in Delano