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The Truth About Cesar Chavez

In response to:

The Myths of Cesar Chavez from the October 8, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

I was gratified to see The New York Review devote space to a discussion of Cesar Chavez [NYR, October 8]; your reviewer’s belief notwithstanding, I assure you Chavez is no longer a household name. I was, however, distressed by the number of errors in the piece. Since the narrative of Chavez’s life and myriad details in the review are drawn largely from my biography, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, I want to correct the following mistakes and clarify that the errors do not appear in the book:

Chavez wasn’t born on his grandfather’s farm; his family moved into a storage room on his grandfather’s homestead when Cesar was two, after his parents lost their house due to financial problems.

The Community Service Organization was not “set up to register Mexican-Americans to vote,” but was the first grassroots empowerment group for Mexican-Americans in California, addressing police brutality, inequitable services, and a host of issues.

Chavez’s first job as an organizer did not pay “$400 a week” but $400 for several months; he was not paid by Saul Alinsky’s foundation but a coalition of groups. Alinsky later hired Chavez at $216 a month.

Chavez did not “reject” the idea that he was “running a union”; he called his first farmworkers’ group an association so as not to scare workers while the organization built strength.

Chavez did not join with the Filipinos in the May 1965 strike near Palm Springs, which was actually in Coachella.

There were not “forty-eight women” arrested for shouting “huelga” in Kern County; eight women were among the forty-four arrested.

The Senate subcommittee did not travel to Delano because of the “huelga” arrests, but went five months later to conduct hearings on pending legislation.

Chavez’s union did have table grape contracts before 1967, most notably with DiGiorgio, the largest grower in California, where the union won a pivotal election in 1966.

Chavez did not conduct “many lengthy public fasts”—there were three. They were not “intended to turn public opinion against the grape growers” but to, respectively, stop violence within the union (1968); protest an anti-farmworker law in Arizona (1972); and protest the use of certain pesticides (1988).

Richard Chavez warned his brother about problems with the 1970 grape contracts but never said the union “risked being voted out by the rank and file” when the contracts expired; workers had no mechanism for voting.

Jerry Brown didn’t just sign the Agricultural Labor Relations Act; he personally negotiated the law, which did not “expedite” elections, but for the first time gave farmworkers the right to petition for a state-run union election.

The UFW had not “picked up 192 new contracts” by early 1976; it had won 192 elections, almost none of which had translated into contracts.

The mythology that has grown up around Chavez makes it all the more crucial to reexamine his life with rigorous attention to details that help us understand a remarkable man and movement.

Miriam Pawel
Pasadena, California

Timothy Noah replies:

Miriam Pawel’s letter alleges many errors that aren’t errors at all.

Whether Cesar Chavez does or does not remain a household name, or whether three fasts constitute “many,” are matters of interpretation too trivial to debate. In some instances Pawel is raising petty objections to my phrasing. Chavez was born on land his father owned that lay adjacent to his grandfather’s farm fields. I wrote that Chavez was born on a “homestead built by his grandfather.” This was a book review, not a title deed.

Most of Pawel’s “errors” are objections to information that came straight out of her book. For example, if the Community Service Organization was not “set up to register Mexican-Americans to vote,” then I can’t fathom why Pawel wrote: “[Founder Fred] Ross…established a grass roots group for Mexican Americans in Los Angeles called the Community Service Organization (CSO). The CSO registered voters [italics mine], offered English classes, and filed discrimination claims.”

Rather than try the reader’s patience by addressing more of Pawel’s fanciful complaints, I’ll turn now to the real errors that she identifies. I count six. I regret them all.

1) Chavez was not paid $400 a week for an early community organizing job. That would have been a lot of money at the time—a thought that, had it occurred to me, would have sent me back for a second look at Pawel’s text.

2) Chavez did not participate in the Filipino farmworkers strike near Palm Springs (i.e., in Coachella). The Coachella strike was a catalyzing event, but it was the Filipino farmworkers’ next strike, a few months later in Delano, California, that Chavez joined. (I don’t understand, though, why Pawel objects to “near Palm Springs” as a geographical reference point for Coachella. The cities lie twenty-nine miles apart.)

3) The number of women arrested for shouting huelga (Spanish for “strike”) was indeed eight, not forty-eight.

4) The Giumarra boycott was not Chavez’s first attempt to win a contract from a table-grape grower. I overlooked an earlier contract with DiGiorgio. Within two years of signing the contract (Pawel’s book reports) DiGiorgio halted production of table grapes.

5) I wrote that Chavez’s fasts were “intended to turn public opinion against the grape growers.” All the fasts were intended to turn public opinion against growers; Robert F. Kennedy wouldn’t have shown up to help Chavez break the first—six days before the start of his presidential campaign—just to shame a few unruly UFW members. But Pawel is correct to register complaint because only the first fast occurred in connection with an action against grape growers. My phrasing indicated otherwise.

6) Chavez did not pick up “192 new contracts” by early 1976. The distinction Pawel draws between union election victories and union contracts is a meaningful one, because the election victories did not lead to many contracts.

I thank Pawel for calling my attention to these mistakes, but not for claiming many others that exist only in her imagination.