An urgent phone call summoned Cesar Chavez back to the Delano, California vineyard that afternoon. Minutes before, a grower’s truck had run down and crippled a National Farm Workers’ picket. Shaking their long poles topped with the union’s black eagle emblem, the throng of strikers pressed menacingly around the truck while the driver cowered behind rolled-up windows. The threat of mayhem hovered in the hot, dry air. Taking the situation in at a glance and unable to get through the crowd, Chavez crept under the truck and emerged on a running board to face his enraged followers. The sudden appearance of their leader stilled the “Chavistas”. Urging them not to take the law in their hands, Chavez vowed to press criminal charges. Slowly the pickets resumed their dusty march. A charismatic apostle of nonviolence had prevailed.
The near riot at Delano was a fairly typical event in 1966. The Chavez-led union had just begun a massive campaign of strikes and boycotts against the growers of table grapes in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Four years later Chavez’s commitment to nonviolence appeared to have triumphed. All but a handful of the growers had capitulated, and the United Farm Workers numbered 50,000 members in their fields. After that victorious year, 1970, Chavez moved the UFW headquarters out of Delano and into an abandoned sanitorium 75 miles to the southeast. It was called La Paz—Spanish for peace.
But in 1974 there is no peace. As a series of table-grape contracts expires, the mighty International Brotherhood of Teamsters has moved against the UFW, at times plainly contemptuous of a tiny rival union which is predominantly Chicano. Already the Teamsters have signed a rash of what Chavez insists are “sweetheart contracts”—more favorable to management than to labor—which offer the growers the security of dealing with a huge, established union, costing them a few cents an hour more in wages but relaxing their responsibility for workers’ safety and medical benefits. The workers in turn get an immediate hourly increase (of varying amounts) and the advantages of membership in a powerful national organization of 2.4 million members. The upshot of the Teamster recruiting is that the United Farm Workers membership has shrunk to a paltry 10,000.
“Union busting!” barked AFL-CIO President George Meany, as he recently threw his influence behind the struggling UFW. And Chavez—arriving in Detroit not long ago on one of his frequent forays across America to shore up the sagging UFW—admitted, “The Teamsters took everything we have.” But he promised that he and the union (which he began as the National Farm Workers Association in 1962) would endure, convinced that his thorn-in-the-side strategy would eventually win: “If the growers don’t sign with us this year they’ll sign with us next, or the next. We have more time than money.”
Up in the foothills of the Tehachapi range, a guardhouse marks the entrance to La Paz, headquarters of the United Farm Workers and the shangrila of Cesar Chavez, now 47. A short, swarthy man wrestles a Rototiller up and down a small garden patch in front of the main administration building—a long, one-story affair which serves as the UFW nerve center and as the offices for the union newspaper EI Malcriado (The Misfit). The gardener is Chavez himself, wearing his invariable uniform of plaid shirt, chino pants and desert boots. As he shuts off the grumbling tiller, two huge German shepherds snap to attention at his side. They are both pets and protection, named Huelga, Spanish for strike, and Boycott. He extends short, quick fingers in a strong handshake, his smile friendly but shy, his eyes dark and sad.
Chavez is eager to show off his retreat, his step as light as an Apache scout’s, the dogs always beside him. He is never out of range of a walkie-talkie, carried this afternoon by a young and burly Chicano named Carlos, whose normal job is servicing the La Paz motor pool.
Yesterday Carlos’ walkie-talkie had squawked a message of trouble at Oxnard, and Chavez had sped for two-and-a-half hours to that coastal town above Los Angeles. Tumbling out of the car as it drew up beside a strawberry field, Chavez learned amidst the shouts of welcome that he had arrived too late. More than 30 farm workers and strike captains had been arrested for minor infractions of the strict rules of picketing and the use of rallying bullhorns—nuisance injunctions won by the growers and their Teamster allies in the campaign against the UFW. A union veteran had had his arm broken as he was hustled into a police car, and Chavez went to visit him before returning to La Paz.
More than 80 full-time volunteers populate its ramshackle collection of wooden bungalows and outbuildings put up decades ago for tuberculosis victims. This afternoon the grounds are almost empty; busloads of “Chavistas,”—like Chavez, all of them work for $5 a week plus room and board—have gone to Los Angeles to get out the vote for the upcoming California primary. Though he refused all requests to endorse major candidates this year, Chavez will join them tomorrow. Today is for La Paz. (Most of the UFW heavies—like Cesar’s brother Richard, Richard’s wife Dolores Huerta, and other members of the Chavez family and old-timers—have been detailed to the more critical strike-and-boycott fronts around the country. Cesar will visit them all in the course of this summer’s crucial campaign to win popular support. This week, for example, he will barnstorm in New York.)
Whenever he returns to La Paz, it is a profusion of flowers, fruits and vegetables—a horticultural bounty that delights a man whose family lost their own farm in Arizona’s Gila River valley during the Depression.
Chavez remembers his first boyhood windfall—a 50-cent tip awarded him for bringing a cauldron of hot coffee to a Filipino work crew his father had hired to harvest lettuce. “That was really big money then,” he reminds the walkie-talkie-equipped Carlos. But before long the Chavezes, like so many Mexican-American farmers, had been sucked into the shifting tides of the migrant stoop-labor force. Cesar had been in and out of 31 grammar schools by the time he quit after the seventh grade. Eventually the family settled in San Jose, where Cesar’s parents, both nearly 90, live today. The grisly Chicano slum there is called Sal Si Puedes (escape if you can) by those trapped within it. Except for a stint on a destroyer escort in the South Pacific during World War II and a crack at lumbering with his brother Richard and a crew of “enormous Swedes,” Chavez has never been far from the field workers to whom he has devoted his life. He learned organizational techniques in the ’50s as part of Saul Alinsky’s pioneering Community Services Organization. When it became clear to him that a formal union was the only answer to the farm laborers’ problems, Chavez broke away from the CSO. By ’66 the UFW was affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
In his stroll through La Paz, Chavez has come abreast of a terraced flower bed which his youngest son Antonio—nicknamed “Birdie”—is bordering with seedling asters. “We’re against fertilizers and pesticides, so this is composted,” Chavez explains. “We don’t use any of those poisons if we can help it.” Indiscriminant use of pesticides is the No. 1 health hazard to field-workers, Chavez claims. The growers know it, and Chavez says he has seen them dust picket lines with the noxious chemicals. Taking the hoe from Birdie, age 14, the father offers a demonstration of how short quick chops from the wrist can ease back-wrenching exhaustion in the fields. “But getting close to the plants is important,” says Chavez, squatting to tuck in one of the seedlings. “You talk to the plant. I really do believe in talking to the plants.”
Beyond the informal taboo on artificial growing aids at La Paz, few of his colleagues are as faithful to the total organic life as Chavez. “I’m the oddball,” he confesses of his vegetarian diet built around walnuts, avocados and carrot juice. “I haven’t eaten dairy products or meat for about six years. Why? Oh, the animal thing, and reasons of health.” His skin is smooth, his body firm; the health regimen seems to work.
More significant than what Cesar Chavez eats, however, is the fact that very often he doesn’t eat at all. Though calling himself a “radical Catholic,” he has drawn galvanizing inspiration from the example of Gandhi—not only in nonviolent protest but in an austere personal life-style exemplified by fasting. Working an average of 20 hours a day, 365 days a year, trekking from strike fronts to organizational meetings, Chavez is certain that his own frequent fasts of a week or more are responsible for his tirelessness. (But his last three-week fast, carried on two years ago in Arizona was, by his own admission, excessive. It slightly damaged his heart.) Chavez furthermore is convinced that fasting remains one of his most potent weapons in drawing attention to La Causa.
The white frame house in which the Chavez family lives at La Paz is not the largest dwelling there. Only three of Cesar’s eight kids are still young enough to live at home. In the yard, sheep are grazing. Inside, typical of a Chicano home, the living room is built around a fraying sofa and an ancient TV set, and the decor includes a number of crucifixes and brightly colored religious figurines. One whole wall is devoted to an enormous collection of political buttons. “We started with just the good causes,” Chavez laughs, “but then we decided to save them all.” His wife Helen, a onetime farm worker, is in the kitchen with an adding machine, totaling the always meager contributions to the UFW strike fund. Chavez points out that La Paz refused to partake of the Hearst food-giveaway when asked to do so by the SLA last winter. “Blood money,” he says, dismissing the subject. By cruel coincidence, Helen has known La Paz longer than the other Chavistas. As a child, she visited members of her family recuperating there from tuberculosis.
Outside, a sharp whacking sound shatters the tranquillity of the day. A chopper from a big ranch in the Valley is buzzing La Paz, a frequent Sunday afternoon diversion. Chavez looks up impassively. “Some people think we’re running a guerrilla training camp up here—machine guns and everything,” murmurs the lama-like figure on his mountain top. Picking up a hoe, he strides off to check on Birdie and the aster patch. The helicopter disappears down into the Valley, where the UFW’s weary pickets will still march tomorrow, and where Cesar Chavez’s battle must yet be won.