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Cesar Chavez founded a labor union, launched a movement, and inspired a generation. He rose from migrant worker to national icon, becoming one of the great charismatic leaders of the 20th century. Two decades after his death, Chavez remains the most significant Latino leader in US history. Yet his life story has been told only in hagiography?until now.
In the first comprehensive biography of Chavez, Miriam Pawel offers a searching yet empathetic portrayal. Chavez emerges here as...
Cesar Chavez founded a labor union, launched a movement, and inspired a generation. He rose from migrant worker to national icon, becoming one of the great charismatic leaders of the 20th century. Two decades after his death, Chavez remains the most significant Latino leader in US history. Yet his life story has been told only in hagiography—until now.
In the first comprehensive biography of Chavez, Miriam Pawel offers a searching yet empathetic portrayal. Chavez emerges here as a visionary figure with tragic flaws; a brilliant strategist who sometimes stumbled; and a canny, streetwise organizer whose pragmatism was often at odds with his elusive, soaring dreams. He was an experimental thinker with eclectic passions—an avid, self-educated historian and a disciple of Gandhian non-violent protest. Drawing on thousands of documents and scores of interviews, this superbly written life deepens our understanding of one of Chavez’s most salient qualities: his profound humanity.
Pawel traces Chavez’s remarkable career as he conceived strategies that empowered the poor and vanquished California’s powerful agriculture industry, and his later shift from inspirational leadership to a cult of personality, with tragic consequences for the union he had built. The Crusades of Cesar Chavez reveals how this most unlikely American hero ignited one of the great social movements of our time.
2014 National Book Critics Circle Finalist for Biography
"The first comprehensive biography of the spectacular rise and messy decline of the United Farm Workers Union, and the man who struck the sparks that launched an epic American social movement." - San Francisco Chronicle
"Engrossing . . . There is so much brilliant political theater in this book that it's easy to see why Chavez is still the most celebrated Latino leader in American history." - The New York Times Book Review
“Powerful and captivating, this first comprehensive biography of Latino rights leader Cesar Chavez traces the story of a man from migrant worker to union leader to icon. Though a historical figurehead, this book doesn’t shy away from Chavez’s moral blemishes, but paints him as a man of deep humanity…The Crusades of Cesar Chavez is an honest, well-rounded look at one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders.” – Los Angeles Magazine
"Pawel, rigorous and captivating, follows her history of Cesar Chavez’s crusade to protect farm workers’ rights, The Union of Their Dreams, with a zestful, dramatic, and redefining biography of the innovative, daring, and persevering activist…Pawel thoroughly chronicles every aspect of Chavez’s battles against California’s politically dominant produce growers, from audacious strikes to the now legendary national grape boycott to his penitential fasts. As she insightfully dissects Chavez’s troubled relationships with his inner circle and each phase in the rise and fall of his increasingly complex and mismanaged organization, Pawel portrays a visionary civil rights leader whose fame and near-beatification engendered tragic misuses of power, but who improved countless lives and raised global consciousness. Chavez’s epic story, told so astutely and passionately by Pawel, is essential to understanding today’s struggles for justice and equality." –Booklist, starred review
"Pawel paints a complex portrait of Chavez with all his strengths and weaknesses...The author's insightful, painstakingly researched, and thoughtful work makes Chavez all the more dimensional and nuanced by recognizing his failings as well as his successes. This fully rounded portrait could well be the definitive biography of this all too human figure." – Library Journal, starred review “A comprehensive portrait… Pawel’s clear, accessible prose befits a subject famous for his plain rhetoric, ensuring a broad readership can appreciate this valuable exploration of Chavez’s unique legacy.”– Publishers Weekly "A warts-and-all biography of an important figure." –Kirkus Reviews
“The most comprehensive and accurate book on the life and work of Cesar Chavez. It is extremely factual, and Pawel lets those facts speak for themselves. She has no agenda or desired outcome in the book. The book highlights the complexity of Cesar Chavez as a person, and does not hesitate to point out all of the virtues and shortcomings of Cesar's work in trying to organize California's farm workers. If you are interested in obtaining one of the best books on Cesar Chavez, this is the one.” – Cardinal Roger Mahoney “Pawel has given us an inspiring book. It introduces us to a formidable leader who drew America’s most disadvantaged workers into a powerful movement. And yet every reader will identify with Cesar Chavez' human foibles; every discouraged political visionary will be moved by his story.” –Alice Kessler-Harris, author of A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman “Miriam Pawel’s new biography The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, massively researched and expertly written, is a welcome expansion and enrichment of her earlier study The Union of Their Dreams. Together they represent the definitive story of this charismatic farm worker and controversial visionary leader whose courage and near-genius as an organizer invigorated the stormy history of American labor.” —Peter Matthiessen, author of Shadow Country and Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
"Miriam Pawel's magnificent biography of Cesar Chavez has the force and scope of a great American novel. Here is the story of a man, from the humblest beginnings, who became a labor organizer as famous as any; here is a deeply flawed man who yearned to be a saint." —Richard Rodriguez, author ofDarling: A Spiritual Autobiography and Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez
"Guau! Miriam Pawel has finally given us the Cesar Chavez we deserve: neither a saint nor a bully but a complex American activist who rose to the occasion with courage, astuteness, and intuition, but was also clumsy, misinformed, and nearsighted. Written in a beautifully nuanced style and displaying enviable depth of knowledge, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez is a masterpiece. Future biographies will be measured against it.” —Ilan Stavans, Amherst College, author of The United States of Mestizo
“Miriam Pawel has produced the definitive account—a lucid, thoughtful, evocative, deeply reported, bracingly honest account—of the life of one of our most consequential modern agents of change. And what a perfect moment for this book's appearance, as the explosion of the Latino population, the implosion of the union moment, immigration policy gridlock and growing inequality have become defining issues of our American moment.” —Kurt Andersen, author of True Believers
“This is a remarkable account of the life of Cesar Chavez and of his iconic struggle for justice for America's migrant farmworkers. Miriam Pawel provides a vivid narrative that is unmatched for the authenticity of its behind-the-scenes detail. That rarest of beasts, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez is at once an important historical document, and a compelling read.” —Jon Lee Anderson, author of The Fall of Baghdad and Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life
Viewed from the air, the North Gila Valley is shaped like a boot, toe pointing west. Along the sole of the boot runs the Gila River, a name seized by the Spanish from an Indian word meaning "river that runs salty." The Gila empties into the Colorado River at the toe of the boot, on the border of California, just outside of Yuma, Arizona.
The valley on the Arizona side is a patchwork of fields and canals that irrigate this fertile stretch of the Sonora Desert. Cotton, alfalfa, and Bermuda grass tolerate the saline soil and flourish in the year-round sun.
In the foothills of the Laguna Mountains that line the eastern edge, about halfway up the back of the boot, are remnants of a once-sturdy adobe house and storage room built near the start of the twentieth century, when homesteaders first laid claim to the valley.
Three decades later, the household was headed by Librado Chavez, a forty-two-year-old cotton farmer. The family included his elderly mother, Dorotea, his wife, Juana, and their three small children, Rita, Richard, and Cesar.
The home stood on a dirt road alongside a small canal. The compound had no number; everyone just knew it as the house built by Papa Chayo. His eighty-five-year-old widow had inherited the farm, and Librado paid her $4 a month in rent. Like most families nearby, they spoke Spanish. The adults had all been born in Mexico, the children in Arizona.
Those basic facts recorded by a census taker on April 3, 1930, captured the skeletal outlines of the world in which Cesar Estrada Chavez grew up. Behind the dry statistics were the people and places that shaped Cesar's life, the physical and emotional geography of his childhood.
The boy born on March 31, 1927, never knew the grandfather he was named after, Cesario Chavez, better known as Papa Chayo. Cesario had grown up in Hacienda de Carmen, a small village in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. He was born around 1845, the same year as Dorotea Hernandez, who became his wife. Stories passed down through generations offered various accounts of why the family left Mexico and headed north. Papa Chayo ran afoul of landowners who ruled the Hacienda and fled rather than face conscription into the army. Or perhaps he served in the army and deserted. Or most likely he simply saw better prospects across the border. Whatever the circumstances, Cesario and Dorotea crossed into Texas in 1898 with eight small children, including Librado, their youngest son. They first lived in El Paso, moved a few times in search of work, and eventually settled outside Yuma, where Papa Chayo built a thriving business hauling wood. He employed much of his extended family, who transported wood in mule-drawn carriages to power the paddle-wheel steamers that plied the Colorado River.
On New Year's Eve, 1906, Cesario Chavez filed a claim under the federal homestead program and took title to the 120-acre farm in the North Gila Valley. He built his house with extra-thick walls, placing eighteen-inch adobe bricks sideways, to withstand the extreme summer heat. The adobe sparkled with small shells embedded to give the building greater strength. Inside, plaster covered the walls and open wood beams lined the ceiling.
By the time of the 1930 census, Dorotea lived in the main house with her one unmarried daughter, who had come to take care of her elderly mother. The house was connected by a wide breezeway to a large room that Papa Chayo had built to store food and grain. Librado and his family lived in the galera, or storeroom. It had two doors and four small windows, built for ventilation, not view.
The compound stood on a small hill, facing west toward the California border about a mile away. The house fronted on the North Gila Main canal, just a half dozen feet wide. To the south of the main house stood the outhouse. To the north was a small vegetable garden, and past that a large cypress that the children climbed and nicknamed the "umbrella tree." Further north along the canal were the homes of Cesar's aunts and uncles, Tia Carmen and Tia Julia on the same side and Tio Julio across the canal, alongside the Chavez family fields.
Librado and his brother Julio grew cotton, watermelon, alfalfa, and Bermuda grass, for the seeds. The crops were planted on eighty acres that sloped gently down from the west bank of the canal, so that gravity did the work of irrigation, pulling river water into the fields when a series of gates were opened. Small log bridges crisscrossed the canal and a wooden bridge in front of the Chavez homestead led to the corral for the horses that drew the plows.
Directly across the fields from Papa Chayo's homestead were three small buildings that Librado saw each day, a constant reminder of his failure. On November 25, 1925, a short time after their marriage, Librado and Juana had bought the cluster of buildings that housed a store, pool hall, and living quarters. To finance the purchase and stock the store, the couple took out mortgages totaling $2,750. Librado was the postmaster as well as storekeeper. He was a poor businessman and despite the multiple incomes soon fell into debt. Librado's children later blamed the financial problems on his generosity and willingness to extend credit at the store. Other relatives faulted Librado for lazy business practices, absenteeism, and a fondness for gambling. Within a few years Librado was forced to give up the store and pool hall to pay back the mortgages. On April 22, 1929, a few weeks after Cesar's second birthday, they lost the land. Juana was pregnant with her third child, and the family moved across the fields into the galera on the Chavez homestead. They brought with them two remnants from the failed business: a pool table and a three-hundred-pound ice chest.
Cesar grew up in a typical extended Mexican family—patriarchal in name, matriarchal in practice. Dorotea, nearly blind but mentally sharp, was the only literate elder. She had been orphaned at a young age and raised in a convent, where she learned to read and write. In the absence of a nearby church, she supervised her grandchildren's religious education and prepared them for confirmation.
Juana Estrada Chavez was the guiding force in Cesar's nuclear family. A dark-skinned, petite woman with Indian features, Juana was smart, strong-willed, and unusually independent for her time. She was born June 24, 1892, in Ascención in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and crossed the border as a six-month-old with her widowed mother, Placida, an older sister, and her uncle. He supported the family, working in the mines in Lordsburg, New Mexico, and then in a smelting plant in El Paso, Texas. Juana's mother remarried and the family moved to Picacho, California, before settling in Yuma. Juana never attended school. She picked cotton, squash, and tomatoes and made mattresses from corn husks. As a young woman she worked as an assistant to the chancellor in the girls' dormitory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she sewed, cleaned, and did laundry for the coeds. The chancellor's wife gave her a recipe for turkey stuffing, which became a family Thanksgiving tradition, passed down through several generations.
Long before she married into the clan, Juana knew the extended Chavez family, connected through work and marriage. Juana's family operated boardinghouses in Yuma that housed workers employed by Papa Chayo's wood-hauling business. In 1906, Juana's older sister, Maria, married Julio, Librado's older brother. A half sister, Francisca, later married Papa Chayo's nephew. Papa Chayo often joked that Juana, too, would marry into the family one day, after he was no longer around. He died in 1921, and several years later his prophecy came true. Librado was thirty-seven and Juana was thirty-two, an unusually late marriage. Their first child, Rita, was born on August 21, 1925, and their first son, Cesar, almost two years later. Both times Juana returned to her mother's house in the city of Yuma to give birth.
While Cesar was still an infant, his grandmother began to suffer from dementia. After Mama Placida died in 1930, Juana said she never cried again, and she never wore black. Years later she would admonish her children not to wear black to her funeral.
Juana and Librado Chavez made a striking couple: Librado a husky man, about five feet eleven inches and 225 pounds, with poor eyesight and large Coke-bottle glasses; Juana a tiny woman, just four feet ten inches, slender with long black hair. The diminutive wife and mother made decisions for the family, and Librado went along. She ran a strict household in accordance with clear beliefs. She favored herbal remedies: Cesar did not see a doctor until he was almost twenty. As a child, his nickname was "Manzi," because of his fondness for the manzanilla tea his mother made to cure colic and other ailments.
Her children considered Juana to be more superstitious than religious, a person of great faith. Like many Mexicans, she believed in saints as advocates and lobbyists. She worshipped Santa Eduviges, an obscure Bavarian from the early thirteenth century known as the patron saint of brides, difficult marriages, and victims of jealousy. A duchess by birth and again by marriage, Eduviges (also known as Hedwig) renounced her worldly possessions when she was widowed and joined a convent. She practiced abstinence, fasted, and meditated on the supernatural. She ministered to the poor and earned sainthood for her generosity to the sick and feeble. Every year on October 16, St. Eduviges's feast day, Juana dispatched her older children to find homeless men and invite them to the house for dinner.
Juana instilled in her children the importance of helping others and the need for personal sacrifice. She raised her children with firm rules and consejos (advice) that underscored those beliefs: Never lend money to your relatives; if they need money, give it to them. When an uncle asks for an errand, perform the task without question. Favors, she told them, are just that; when the children did favors for neighbors, they were not allowed to take a nickel in return. She quoted dichos, or sayings, about not fighting and told them to just walk away from conflict. She insisted they share everything. She cut food in equal portions for the children; if someone complained they got the small piece, she took the food away from all. She told the children parables about good kids and bad kids: the disobedient son who was taken away by the devil; the drunk son who was about to hit his mother when the rock froze in his hand.
Mostly, life for Librado and Juana's children in the Gila Valley was carefree. They were not well-off, but they were comfortable, well clothed, and never hungry. Juana grew tomatoes, cucumbers, and hot chiles in the garden, turned sweet berries from the mesquite trees into drinks, and made fresh cheese from the milk of their cow. Even in 1932, in the depth of the Depression, when Librado could not sell his cotton and corn and had to trash his crops, the family had plenty of chicken. When Librado earned a few dollars, Juana used the money to buy salt to give the chicken flavor.
The children enjoyed the security of an extended family scattered across the tranquil Arizona valley. Two of Cesar's aunts lived in small houses on Papa Chayo's land. One of Papa Chayo's brothers had emigrated to America with him from Hacienda de Carmen, and over time the Chavezes intermarried with four families in the Gila Valley. Their surnames mingled—Arias, Rico, Quintero, and Arviso—and many ended up related to each other through multiple ties, whether cousins, in-laws, or double cousins. In the three-room schoolhouse that the children attended, Rita and Cesar were related in some way to almost every student.
The Chavez home had no electricity, and they stored food in the ice chest. They used water from the canal for drinking, cooking, and bathing. They heated water inside and washed in a big tub outside. As the eldest girl, Rita did much of the cooking, cleaning, and washing. She heated irons on the wood stove, attaching a cool handle each time the one she worked with became too hot. Juana was clear on gender roles: girls should not do men's work, and boys should not do women's work.
Cesar's chores included chopping wood, exercising the horses, harvesting watermelons, and feeding the animals. They had a cow, horses, and so many chickens that they couldn't give eggs away fast enough. During the Depression, Juana sent Cesar and Richard to trade eggs for goat's milk, flour, or freshly butchered meat. They hunted quail and rabbit and caught catfish in the irrigation ditches. When gophers became a problem for the canal and interfered with pipes, the irrigation district paid Cesar and Richard to catch the animals, a penny per tail.
Two years after Richard was born, Juana gave birth to a daughter. Helena was only about eleven months old when she fell ill, suffered severe diarrhea, and died. Juana was pregnant, and a few months later she gave birth to another daughter, whom she named after her patron saint, Eduviges. The youngest child was Librado, known as Lenny, born in the summer of 1934. By then the roof on the storeroom had begun to leak, and the family moved into a two-room cottage built next to the main house. The two adults and five children slept on three double beds.
The children viewed the outdoors as their playground. They rode horses, and in the summer the canal became their backyard swimming pool. Cesar and Richard shot pool on the table salvaged from the failed business. At night they gathered around fires and listened to the grownups tell stories. They measured time by when a horse gave birth, or how soon the first watermelon would ripen.
To get to school, the children crossed their fields, then turned right and walked about a half mile north to the Laguna Dam School, whose high steeple marked the skyline. The T-shaped building housed three classrooms—first through third grade in the let-hand room, fourth through sixth grade on the right, and seventh and eighth in front. Children were not allowed to speak Spanish, and when he entered school, Cesario became Cesar. Rita was an excellent student, but her brother chafed at the rules and discipline. His first few days in school, he insisted on sitting next to his older sister, rather than with his own grade at his assigned desk.
By the time Cesar began school in 1933, his family faced more financial difficulties. Librado had fallen several years in arrears on property taxes for the homestead. In December 1930, the state had put the family on notice: the Chavezes had seven years to pay several thousand dollars in back taxes or lose title to the land. Librado made another short-lived attempt to make a go of the store and pool hall in rented space, hoping to capitalize on traffic generated by the building of the nearby Imperial Dam. The store again ended in failure. On March 14, 1936, perhaps as a sign that she lacked faith in Librado's financial responsibility, Dorotea deeded the farm to her youngest son, Felipe, although he lived in California.
Dorotea died in her home on July 11, 1937. Three months later, Yuma County auctioned of the Chavez farm for back taxes and penalties of $4,080.60. On December 6, 1937, Felipe Chavez filed suit against the county board of supervisors, charging they had improperly seized his mother's land because, as a widow, she should have been exempt from paying taxes. The legal action bought the family some time.
Librado had health problems in addition to his financial difficulties. He had suffered bouts of sunstroke since he was a young man. Doctors had warned him to move to a cooler climate or risk severe consequences. Librado had resisted leaving the Gila Valley while his mother was alive. After she died, he made a solo trip to California to scout out work. Then, in the summer of 1938, the family left the triple-degree heat of the Arizona desert and traveled to the temperate clime of Oxnard, California, where one of Cesar's aunts lived. Librado, Juana, and the five children all crowded into Tia Carmen's home, an hour north of Los Angeles. The older children attended Our Lady of Guadalupe school for five weeks, then the family returned to Yuma for the winter growing season. They moved back into the family homestead, now embroiled in legal foreclosure proceedings. Rita and Cesar finished another year at the Laguna Dam School, completing seventh and fifth grades, respectively.
Excerpted from The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Miriam Pawel. Copyright © 2014 Miriam Pawel. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS.
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