Saint Cesar of Delano: As the Leader of the Farm Workers' Movement, Cesar Chavez Became an Iconic Figure of the 1960s. but His Union Was Largely a Failure. It Was as a Martyr Who Embodied the Psychic Contrast between Mexico and America That He Commanded Our Attention

By Rodriguez, Richard | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Saint Cesar of Delano: As the Leader of the Farm Workers' Movement, Cesar Chavez Became an Iconic Figure of the 1960s. but His Union Was Largely a Failure. It Was as a Martyr Who Embodied the Psychic Contrast between Mexico and America That He Commanded Our Attention


Rodriguez, Richard, The Wilson Quarterly


THE FUNERAL FOR CESAR CHAVEZ TOOK PLACE IN AN open field near Delano, a small agricultural town at the southern end of California's Central Valley. I remember an amiable Mexican disorder, a crowd listening and not listening to speeches and prayers delivered from a raised platform beneath a canvas tent. I do not remember a crowd numbering 30,000 or 50,000, as some estimates have it--but then I do not remember. Perhaps a cool, perhaps a warm spring sun. Men in white shirts carried forward a pine box. The ease of their movement suggested the lightness of their burden.

When Cesar Chavez died in his sleep in 1993, not yet a very old man at 66, he died--as he had so often portrayed himself in life--as a loser. The United Farm Workers (UFW) union he had cofounded was in decline; the union had 5,000 members, equivalent to the population of one very small Central Valley town. The labor in California's agricultural fields was largely taken up by Mexican migrant workers--the very workers Chavez had been unable to reconcile to his American union, whom he had branded "scabs" and wanted reported to immigration authorities.

I went to the funeral because I was writing a piece on Chavez for The Los Angeles Times. It now occurs to me that I was present at a number of events involving Cesar Chavez. I was a teenager at the edge of the crowd in 1966, when Chavez led UFW marchers to the steps of the capitol in Sacramento to generate support for a strike against grape growers. A few years later, I went to hear him speak at Stanford University. I can recall everything about the occasion except why I was there. I remember a golden light of late afternoon; I remember the Reverend Robert McAfee Brown introducing Cesar Chavez. Something about Chavez embarrassed me. It was as though someone from my family had turned up at Stanford to lecture undergraduates on the hardness of a Mexican's life. I stood at the back of the room. I did not join in the standing ovation. I would not give him anything. And yet, of course, there was something compelling about his homeliness.

In her thoroughly researched and thoroughly unsentimental book The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement, journalist Miriam Pawel chronicles the lives of a collection of people--farm workers, idealistic college students, young East Coast lawyers, a Presbyterian minister, and others--who gave years of their lives at subsistence pay to work for the UFW. By the end of her book, every person Pawel profiles has left the union--has been fired or has quit in disgust or frustration. Nevertheless, it is not beside the point to notice that Cesar Chavez inspired such a disparate, devoted company.

We easily forget that the era we call "the Sixties" was not only a time of vast civic disaffection; it was also a time of religious idealism. At the forefront of what amounted to the religious revival of America in those years were the black Protestant ministers of the civil rights movement, ministers who insisted upon a moral dimension to the rituals of everyday American life--eating at a lunch counter, riding a bus, going to school.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Cesar Chavez similarly east his campaign for better wages and living conditions for farm workers as a religious movement. He became for many Americans, especially Mexican Americans (my parents among them), a figure of spiritual authority. I remember a small brown man with an Indian aspect leading labor protests that were also medieval religious processions of women, children, nuns, college students, burnt old men--under the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

By the time he had become the most famous Mexican American anyone could name--his face on the cover of Time--the majority of Mexican Americans lived in dries, far from the tragic fields of California's Central Valley that John Steinbeek had made famous a generation before. Mexican Americans were more likely to work in construction or in service-sector jobs than in the fields.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Saint Cesar of Delano: As the Leader of the Farm Workers' Movement, Cesar Chavez Became an Iconic Figure of the 1960s. but His Union Was Largely a Failure. It Was as a Martyr Who Embodied the Psychic Contrast between Mexico and America That He Commanded Our Attention
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.