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I first came across the name Cesar Chavez in Peter Matthiessen’s book, Sal Si Puedes: César Chavez and the New American Revolution. It was 1972 and I was an idealistic and sheltered malcontent living in the farmlands of Indiana. Matthiessen, on the basis of his haunting novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord, […]

Render Unto Cesar

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

I first came across the name Cesar Chavez in Peter Matthiessen’s book, Sal Si Puedes: César Chavez and the New American Revolution. It was 1972 and I was an idealistic and sheltered malcontent living in the farmlands of Indiana. Matthiessen, on the basis of his haunting novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord, was my favorite writer. And through the magic of his lucid prose, Chavez became a heroic figure for me. Right up there with Che, Roberto Clemente and Muhammad Ali: the four idols of my lost youth.

I still recall Matthiessen’s vivid description of Chavez back in that turbulent summer of 1969:

"The man who has threatened California has an Indian’s bow nose and lank black hair, with sad eyes and an open smile that is shy and friendly; at moments he is beautiful, like a dark seraph. He is five feet six inches tall, and since his twenty-five-day fast the previous winter, has weighed no more than one hundred and fifty pounds. Yet the word "slight" does not properly describe him. There is an effect of being centered in himself so that no energy is wasted, an effect of density; at the same time, he walks as lightly as a fox. One feels immediately that this man does not stumble, and that to get where he is going he will walk all day."

I was 14 when I helped to organize the grape and lettuce boycotts in Indianapolis. We were not an overwhelming force by any means. There were five or six of us at most meetings. We targeted a different store each weekend. On my first picket, I parked myself in front of a Kroger’s on the south side of Indianapolis–the albino suburb of a city that’s whiter than Carrera marble. I harangued housewives about the conditions of farmworkers on their way in and on the way out. They looked at me as if I was a lunatic, horrified at the prospect that I was one of their neighbor’s children. Would one of their own come home one day in the grip of a similar fever?

They had good cause to think I’d gone around the bend. I’d never met a migrant farmworker. I had only one Hispanic friend. I didn’t really know the first thing about the struggle. But I’d been seduced by the Chavez mystique. I heard him speak in Indianapolis in 1970, mourning the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, venting against the war, calling for an economic revolution. I followed his 1972 fast, which lasted for 25 miserable days, with the devotion of a soap opera addict.

After about thirty minutes the store exhausted its patience with my pestering of its shoppers. The sheriff arrived. He told me to pack up and leave. I refused. He carted me off to jail, locked me in the bathroom so as not to put me in with "the drunks and child abusers" and called my parents. It was my first arrest. There would be others in the months and years ahead. The usual story of an obnoxious child. Thank you, Cesar Chavez for giving me my start in a life of political crime.

Chavez was born in 1927 on the family ranch near Yuma, Arizona. He’s grandfather had fled the shackles of peonage in 1880s and homesteaded this tract of Sonoran desert into a profitable venture.

Cesar’s father, Librado, ran a small general store and served as postmaster. In 1938, the family lost the ranch and the store to drought and the aftermath of the depression. Like thousands of other Mexican-Americans, they hit the road to California, looking for work in the brutal fields of the Central Valley. They landed in a barrio of San Jose, known as Sal Si Puedesget out if you can.

When he turned 18, Chavez enlisted in the Navy, serving in the western Pacific through the end of the war. When he got out he went to work in the dusty vineyards of Delano, where he met Helen Fabela. They married in 1948. Later that year, Chavez helped organize his first strike, protesting meager wages, cruel bosses and other inhumane conditions in the fields. The strike lasted for nearly a week, but eventually police and the field bosses bludgeoned the striking laborers back to work.

But Chavez had made a name for himself. In 1952, he was recruited by Fred Ross to become an organizer with the Community Service Organization, the civil rights group started by Saul Alinski. During his early days with CSO, Chavez spent much of his time organizing in urban areas of California, spearing heading voter registration campaigns and other kinds of basic political footwork. In 1958, he rose to the position of national director of the CSO.

For the next few years he pushed hard for the organization to take on the task of organizing California’s exploding population of migrant workers, ruthlessly exploited by the vineyards and vegetable growers. But the board of the CSO wanted Chavez to stick with more urban issues. Frustrated, he resigned in 1962, went back to Delano and founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America.

The first major strike against the grape growers occurred on September 8 1965, when Filipino workers in Delano walked out of the fields to picket for better wages. A week later Chavez and his young union joined the strike. To support the strike, Chavez along with the firebrand Dolores Huerta launched a series of marches on the state capital in Sacramento. By May of 1966, more than 10,000 people followed Chavez to the statehouse.

And there was a victory. Later that year, Chavez and his union negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement between farmworkers and growers in the continental United States. It’s provision included higher wages, contracts requiring rest periods, clean drinking water, hand-washing facilities, protective clothing against pesticide spraying while workers are in the fields and the banning of DDT.

The feds took notice, too. In 1965, the FBI opened a file on Chavez. The initial letter to Hoover noted that he "possibly had a subversive background" and that field agents suspected him of having ties to communist agitators. It was an old canard. But over the next twenty years the spooky scribes at the FBI amassed more than 2,500 pages on Chavez and the United Farmworkers Organizing Committee. Much of the information came from local cops, Republican politicians and field bosses for the agriculture giants that rule the Central Valley. One FBI memo notes that the feds’ relations with the companies had "always been cordial."

I lost touch of Chavez’s work through much of the 1980s. Then shortly after we moved to Oregon I ran into him at a migrant worker rally in the Willamette Valley. He looked tired, the years of ceaseless struggle, internal battles and fasting had taken its toll. Another boycott of grapes had been launched, this one targeted at the growers’ indiscriminate use of pesticides as workers labored in the fields under toxic clouds. The predictable results: childhood cancers and public indifference.

A few years later Chavez was dead, felled by a heart attack while he slept in his hotel room in San Luis, Arizona-only miles from where he was born. He was waiting to testify yet one more time against the vegetable growers.

A few days later more than 50,000 people took to the streets to mourn him at his funeral in Delano. One of them was the actor and environmentalist, Ed Begley, Jr., who helped carry Chavez’s coffin down the streets of Delano.

Begley, who grew up in Van Nuys as the son of Hollywood actor Ed Begley, followed Chavez’s work much as I had as a teenager. He supported the boycotts of grapes and lettuce. Then in 1985 Begley ran into Chavez by accident.

"I was at a coffee shop on Sepulveda having a bowl of oatmeal and a guy pulled up in a car with another," Begley recalls. "I thought that guy looks a lot like Cesar Chavez, but I knew it couldn’t be him. It was a tiny little car. There was only one guy, no entourage. There was no security team that any labor leader of the time would have had. This was a guy like Jimmy Hoffa, a big labor leader. But when he walked by, there was no mistake. It was Cesar Chavez. I walked up to him and asked him if the grape boycott was still on. He said, "Yes, because of the pesticides’. I offered to help and he said, ‘Give me your number.’"

In 1987, Begley began working with the United Farm Workers on the use of chemical pesticides. He donated money and helped organize the Hollywood political community behind the cause. In 1990, Begley met Chavez for the final time at an environmental film festival in Colorado.

"He invited me to take a walk with him," Begley says. "We went to a church. He lit a candle. And we talked about the sanctity of live and the creation. He talked about how environmentalists must not only have respect for nature, but also for the workforce that puts food on the table and how they should be protected from hazardous chemicals. The next time I saw him I was carrying his casket down the streets of Delano."

Ten years have passed since Chavez’s death and his life story has yet to be told on film, TV or the stage. Perhaps this is not an entirely unhappy circumstance given the ludicrous nature of the usual Hollywood biopic.

But now Begley comes along with Cesar and Ruben, a musical tribute to the life Chavez and his friend Ruben Salazar, the Mexican-American reporter for the Los Angeles Times who was slain by LA Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Wilson in 1970.

Salazar is one of the great unknown heroes of the 1960s. In addition to writing searing reports on the struggles of Hispanics for the LA Times, he served as news director for KMEX, the Spanish-language television station in southern California. He was murdered on August 29, 1970. He’d slipped into the Silver Dollar Bar in East LA after covering a Vietnam War protest that had been brutally put down by LA cops. Deputy Wilson entered the bar with a shotgun, aimed it at Salazar and, despite protests from two women in the bar, fired. Salazar was hitt in the head with a teargas canister and died instantly. A coroner’s inquest ruled Salazar’s death a homicide, but no charges were ever filed against the maniacal Deputy Wilson.

The play opened at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood on March 14. The war on Iraq opened only days later. There’s a strange symmetry at work here. The heyday of Chavez’s campaign coincided with the Vietnam War and he never shied away from uniting the struggle for racial and social justice with the goals of the anti-war movement.

But this is Los Angeles, a city that has been mired in a kind of dazed paranoia since 9/11. Angelinos can’t understand why New York and DC were attacked and they weren’t. Was there some oversight at Bin Laden HQ? Surely they must be next. So as the cruise missiles streaked toward Baghdad, Los Angeles bunkered down, sure that they would be the victims of a counter-attack. That means that so far Cesar and Ruben hasn’t gotten the audience it deserves. Tuesday and Wednesday night performances had to be cancelled because fewer than 10 people showed up. That’s a shame because the play deserves to be seen.

But things are beginning to pick up. The night we saw the Cesar and Ruben the gorgeous old theater was nearly full and we were sandwiched between Harry Dean Stanton and Harry Shearer.

Cesar and Ruben is a discussion between ghosts. It opens in some purgatorial bar soon after Chavez’s death. Salazar leads Chavez, back through his past, with a string of popular song and dance routines to keep things moving along. Begley skillfully deploys songs by Ruben Blades, Santana, Sting, Don Henley and David Crosby to speak to the struggles of racism, cop abuse and the backbreaking tedium of fieldwork: tough issues to depict in a musical. In fact, Cesar and Ruben provides the first beneficial use of an Enrique Iglesias song I’ve yet heard.

Roberto Alcaraz gives a vivid portrayal of Chavez, in a demanding role that requires him to go from giving lofty speeches to singing a niftily reworked version of Sting’s Fields of Gold. A native of East LA, Alcaraz followed Chavez’s career throughout his youth, adhering to the boycotts with a religious passion. "When I was in college in the 80s," Alcaraz says. "The Farmworker’s Movement was a way of discovering my own Chicano identity."

Delores Huerta is played by the feisty Danielle Barbosa, who bears a striking resemblance to the fearless organizer. Begley’s beautiful wife, Rachelle Carson (great name), is deliciously menacing as the schoolteacher who berates a young Chavez, played with gusto by Evan Saucedo, for making the unforgiveable mistake of speaking Spanish in her classroom.

But the play is dominated by a harrowing performance from Eddie Albert, Jr., who portrays the vicious field boss Naylor. The character of Naylor is a composite of several notorious field bosses from the valley, who became even more sadistic as the roots of Chavez’s movement began to take hold. "Naylor and those guys were panicked because all of a sudden these people who they depended on to be malleable were suddenly organizing and coming back at them. That struck at the core of any self-confidence they had and who they were and what they did."

These master’s of misery still out there, plying their merciless trade. Today, there’s a Naylor running Nike sweatshops in Indonesia.

Begley’s play flirts with hagiography, and navigates around Chavez’s unsavory ties to the Synanon cult and its mad leader Charles Dederich, but never fully surrenders to it. That’s a good thing. Chavez’s life and career are instructive, but not unblemished. There were plenty of wrong turns, internal feuds and petty betrayals. He neglected his family and nearly destroyed his union. It’s the familiar story of the destructive monomania of the professional activist.

But you can’t discount Cesar Chavez’s achievement. Over his three decades of work, there were fasts, arrests, strikes, setbacks, nasty battles with the Teamsters and one boycott after another. The union won some exceptional victories, including the replacement of employment contractors with union hiring halls; union contracts regulating safety and sanitary conditions in farm labor camps, banning discrimination in employment and sexual harassment of female workers; and the banning of the infamous short-handled hoe that maimed generations of farmworkers. It’s a record few labor leaders can match. And Ed Begley’s play helps breathe life into that legacy ten years after Chavez’s death.

Sal Si Puedes. Escape if you can. Words to live by.