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50 Years On, Reconsidering Cesar Chavez

Oct 12, 2012
Originally published on October 12, 2012 12:46 pm



I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the European Union. We'll check in with an expert in Oslo to find out more about that surprising choice. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we take a closer look at an historical icon in America. Labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez was responsible for founding what's now known as the United Farm Workers Union. He fought to bring safety and dignity to the lives of farm workers and for basic rights like lunch breaks, clean water, toilets in the fields.

Earlier this week, President Obama honored Chavez by dedicating his home, La Paz, as a national monument and we can hear a clip here from the ceremony.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our world is a better place because Cesar Chavez decided to change it. Let us honor his memory, but most importantly, let's live up to his example.

HEADLEE: But a new book says the Chavez legacy is perhaps more complicated than we first thought. From the jaws of victory, the triumph and tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement critically reassesses much of what's known about the man and his movement. Its author is Matt Garcia, professor of transporter studies in history at Arizona State University and he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

MATT GARCIA: Thank you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: So you know a lot about textbooks. What's missing from the textbook history of Cesar Chavez?

GARCIA: Well, so much of the story of Chavez really happens before 1970 when we read it. That's the year when they realized the contracts - the first contracts for farm workers in California because of his great leadership and activism.

But, in the mid-'70s, he really lost his way. He took his foot off the gas pedal in terms of organizing farm workers and went down the road of creating an intentional community at La Paz, ironically.

HEADLEE: In the book, you write about the fact that we should step away from what you call, quote, "a narrow light of celebration" and see Chavez more as a tragic hero. What do you mean?

GARCIA: Well, they had set some lofty goals for themselves. They wanted to achieve 100,000 members in California by the end of 1977 and eventually become a national farm worker union and they were well on their way. In 1975, they achieved what was regarded as the best labor law in the United States. It was the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which allowed for elections to happen and for farm workers to get representation.

But Chavez began to really question his direction and he didn't like that most of the movement that handed over mostly to lawyers and so he invested deeply in owning land, in creating a community at La Paz and really took his attention away from farm workers and got more invested in his own power and his own control of that particular community.

HEADLEE: You know, you've been working on this book, researching for 10 years. Did you set out to debunk some of these myths or show some of the failings, I guess, of Cesar Chavez in his later years?

GARCIA: Not at all. Actually, you know, my grandparents were farm workers who worked in those very fields. I was coming to the project wanting to tell the history from the bottom up and I really was trying to do a history of the people that made the movement move and I didn't really want to focus on Chavez, but the thing about it was that Chavez had so much control and that, when the union took a wrong step, it was mostly his responsibility because he had all power in the union. It was a non-Democratic organization.

And so, for that reason, when it made some missteps, I really had to tell the story of Chavez.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about the legacy of labor leader Cesar Chavez with Matt Garcia. He's the author of "From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement."

It seems, from some of the things you've written, that Chavez was kind of a childhood hero for you, somebody that you've read about and learned about, even as a kid. And I wonder, were you conflicted? Was it difficult for you to tell some of these negative - negative side or the flaws in Chavez's history?

GARCIA: Yes. Anyone of my generation who studies Mexican-American history who lived through the 1970s, '80s and '90s probably boycotted grapes because Cesar Chavez said so and that was something that was second nature to me.

But, you know, the thing about history is that we have to follow the archive. We have to follow the evidence. And I took students into the archive at Reuther Library at Wayne State University and what we found were...

HEADLEE: Walter Reuther, the UAW labor leader.

GARCIA: That's right. And what we found is a treasure trove of tapes. Like all great leaders in the 1970s, Richard Nixon was doing this. All leaders were, essentially, taping themselves and Chavez was taping his meetings where we got to see or hear, essentially, when he made these missteps. And my students would walk out of from listening to those tapes and say, I hate Cesar Chavez. And I thought, what are you guys listening to? And I started listening to it, as well, and we started transcribing it and there are moments of vulgarity. There are moments in which you really can see that there was some resentment toward farm workers, actually.

And so I had to put it in a context and so my 10 years of struggle was to kind of come to terms with who Cesar Chavez was, both the triumph, as I say, but also the tragic - the tragedy of him really losing his way. And I think that that is a worthy goal because we only learn from tragic heroes. We don't learn from the hollow saints, as I say in the book, and Chavez was this tragic figure because they had set the bar so high for themselves and they almost reached it, but not quite because of his leadership.

HEADLEE: And yet - I mean, since you're already talking about both triumph and tragedy, there are people who would argue that because most of America does not know a lot about Cesar Chavez - I imagine there's a lot of high schoolers who don't recognize the name. They would say that perhaps, until people know more about his triumphs, that maybe we shouldn't be talking about the tragedies.

GARCIA: Right. And, you know, today even, people don't know who Cesar Chavez is. When they say Cesar Chavez, they confuse him for Hugo Chavez. Back in the '90s, when I was helping out...

HEADLEE: The Venezuelan president. Right?

GARCIA: Yeah. And when I was working in Pomona, California with young children, I remember the day that Cesar Chavez died and kids broke into tears. These were mostly Mexican immigrant children and they were crying because they thought it was Julio Cesar Chavez, the boxer.

So that is some way of understanding how, in fact, the years of celebration, that narrow light of celebration, has not really served the history well. It hasn't even served Cesar very well. I think that understanding the complexities of the man and the complexities of the movement actually return us to some very valuable lessons, the lessons of how to build a farm worker movement, but also the things we shouldn't do. And these are valuable lessons for people that are still struggling to bring social justice to the fields.

HEADLEE: Matt Garcia is the author of "From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement." He joined us from NPR member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona.

Thank you so much, Matt.

GARCIA: Thank you, Celeste.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.