Having worked as a physician for the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) from 1973-78, I was interested in Zelda Bronstein’s interview with Randy Shaw about his new book on Cesar Chavez and the UFW. Since Cesar’s death it’s been my feeling that anyone who tried to write the story of Cesar might either succumb to psychocophancy or else be branded a heretic. Thus I have avoided comment on Cesar’s legacy. Like many former UFW staff I refused to talk publicly. Former KPFA programmer Chuy Varela once did a program on Cesar that I thought lacked insight and I called Chuy to tell him why. He invited me to come on the air. I refused.
In 1999 I—and many former UFW staff—received a letter from History Professor Paul Henggeler of the University of Texas—Pan American (at Edinburg, Texas) asking for help in a book he was writing about Cesar and the UFW. I was wary of his motives but Henggeler was persistent and persuasive. He demonstrated that he had a strong pro-union history, admired Chavez, that 95% of his students were Mexican-American and he had written a well received book on the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys. On August 29, 1999 Henggeler wrote me: “Personally, I am a New Deal Democrat and very much pro-union…I admire Chavez and firmly believe that he did more to help the farm workers than any person in American history….But if I don’t assess these documents (he had read the entire archives of the UFW at Wayne State University) someone else will—someone who might not be sympathetic…he (Cesar Chavez) is betrayed by people who misread the past. I do not believe that the future of the farm workers or the UFW would be best served by ignoring the past, or by trying to escape this unfortunate turn in the UFW’s history. Mistakes were made, prompting the sad departure of some very dedicated and hard-working people and eventually even Board members themselves. History is bigger than its subjects. And I believe that the best service one can do for Cesar Chavez is to tell his story.” Like many others, I then spoke with Henggeler.
When I last spoke with Paul Henggeler he was having trouble with some loose ends and the book’s publication date had already been pushed back over two years. That was around 2004-5. Within a year Henggeler was suddenly dead of a heart attack at a young age. So far, to this date, his wife, whom I do not know and have never contacted, seems reluctant to go ahead and publish. That would be understandable for I’m sure it would put her in the media spotlight and create some attention and also some animosity.
However, Hengeller’s stirring up the embers of the deep historical controversies within the UFW gave Leroy Chatfield, a former priest and one of Cesar’s former personal support staff at La Paz in Keene California an idea. Leroy initiated a kind of people’s history of the UFW by gathering e-mail addresses for many or most of the UFW’s former staff members (several hundreds of people) and asking them to participate in an open uncensored gathering of information, experiences and opinions on the UFW’s past for a new web site. That web site went up in mid-2007 and has had, I believe, over 1 million hits since. I was at first wary of participating in the Leroy’s effort (as I was with Henggeler) but slowly it became clear that Leroy was seriously interested in trying to moderate a full and mutually respectful airing of everything from the vital years of the UFW’s growth into a powerful force in California and US politics through its period of major gains in rights for farm workers. And so, although I did not particate in the 6 months of blogging discussion that is totally on the web site, I did ultimately write my own story and post an essay among the hundreds of other essays that detail our experience with the La Union and La Causa.
From Zelda’s interview I wouldn’t want to say much about Shaw’s book except that I doubt it could have the depth and inclusiveness that readers may find on the web site Leroy still monitors at www.farmworkermovement.org. Or that it could be as rigorous as the effort that Henggeler had “almost completed.” There are months of fascinating reading to be had at the farm worker movement web site from all sides of the story of the UFW and Cesar E Chavez. In addition a former Berkeleyan who was one of the Oakland 7 from Stop the Draft Week and then became a farm worker and union organizer has also been working on a book on this subject.
I am writing now because I think we too often mis-teach and mis-learn history as undialectical—as if great leaders like King and Chavez come along and simply lead us out of bondage into great social advances by force of their own natures. The effort to canonize such leaders is misguided and prevents us from learning much about the social forces that work to the benefit or the destruction of our social movements and leaders. More than any leader I know Cesar Chavez approaches the stature of a tragic figure. It was Cesar’s leadership strengths—his charisma, his intelligence and pragmatism, his faith (religious in particular), his belief in himself, in destiny and hope to improve people’s lives—that made him an exceptional leader, allowed him to both suceed and then to be trapped as in a room with no exit by forces he thought he understood and could control. Those forces of capitalism included the national AFL-CIO leadership—which was at that time working closely with the CIA through the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)—the liberal wing of the Democratic Party—in particular Jerry Brown—and the Catholic Church. Each of these forces gave much unto Cesar to grow and sustain the UFW’s meteoric rise, only to later corner him and exact unacceptable prices. The greatest price was the internal battle waged over whether the UFW would become an economic trade union with better management efficiency like any good union or remain a broad political movement rallying social forces and communities to fight for a more just society. Cesar and the UFW leadership were being pushed to resolve this dillema but it was not actually a dillema that had to be. The UFW did not have to desert its movement character in order to perfect is labor organizing efforts. At first, Cesar thought he had a way to control those forces that pushed him hither and yon, but they ultimately forced him into a kind of leadership isolation that led to internal divisions, weakened the UFW and made him paranoid about people who criticized his policies, methods, and style. With all his successes, Cesar Chavez saw no good reason why anyone should feel they could challenge him. Look at what he had achieved. Chavez, but also some leaders around him, could not see that his autonomy and that of the farm workers’ movement had been irreversibly compromised right there on the path of its successes, and that from the workers in the fields and Ranch Committees, to the union offices, the legal department and the clinics, these compromises would inevitably become unacceptable to many of those dedicated Chavistas who had built the union. Mass purges ensued, the UFW became only a shadow of itself, and its impact in the fields, in the lives of farm workers and around the nation faltered, but the effort to blur these terrible losses still continues. That was almost 30 years ago, and Henggeler’s book needs to be published.
Marc Sapir is a Berkeley resident.