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.
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. …