Caesar Chavez on the México-Tenochitlán—The Wall That Talks mural project, Avenue 61 and Figueroa, Los Angeles
From New Left Review:
In any account of the United Farm Workers, there is ample room for recrimination and bitterness; but Bardacke shows none of that in his own spirited history. The story of the UFW is inseparable from that of Cesar Chavez, the most magnetic race leader in the mid-to-late twentieth century after Martin Luther King, Jr. Like the latter a champion of non-violence, Chavez was seemingly predestined to bring down the movement with his own failures—although it would perhaps be more accurate, and certainly more generous, to say that it was the failure of the movement that brought down Chavez. The long odds against institutional success for the largely Mexican and Mexican-American agrarian workforce, owning nothing but their labour, made the charismatic super-leader’s implosion likely if not inevitable.
Bardacke, who comes from a bohemian family background, was a civil-rights activist in the early 60s, then a campus leader at Berkeley; later he was one of the many activists and counsellors who staffed the GI coffee houses and later still an agricultural worker: he spent ‘six seasons in the fields between 1971 and 1979’ harvesting broccoli, lettuce and celery in Salinas, California. He is said to have helped introduce the long-handled hoe in Watsonville, before leaving the fields to become a local teacher. Bardacke has too fine a feeling for the subject to reduce UFW history to an aspect of Cesar Chavez’s biography, as many have in the past. Chavez shares the stage with many farm workers whose stories the author tells, focusing on the character of their work, the structure of their crews, their left political backgrounds in Mexico—all of which had major impacts on the union. The differing ways in which the work was done, for example, especially in lettuce and grapes, gave farm workers involved in those crops different measures of power; these were a major factor in the union’s two-decade-long struggle with agribusiness and in the final debilitating battle within the union. Moreover, the agrarista politics the workers brought with them from Mexico played an essential part in building the union in the fields, and were a major point of difference with the Catholic Social Action ideology of Chavez and many of the top union staffers.
Except for two bitter years spent in the Navy in 1944–46, Chavez—a second-generation Mexican-American whose family lost its small store during the Depression and ended up working the fields—also picked crops until he found a new career for himself. Educated and trained in line with conservative Catholic ideas of service, sacrifice and militant resistance to ‘foreign’ doctrines such as Socialism or Communism, he could rally not only farm workers and a small army of dedicated radical idealists, but also Catholic figures, from bishops to priests, who had long shied away from progressive movements out of fear of a Communist taint. He could even appeal to rising liberal celebrities like Robert Kennedy, who carried a sordid history of collaboration with the FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Behind this seemingly personal saga lay a broader activist history.