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A Special Supplement: The Chicanos

On this prejudice they have been fairly productive. As advanced-degree candidates, journalists, professors, and researchers for state and federal commissions, they have delivered titles that now amount to a 200 page bibliography. But precisely because they have treated their subjects as intrusions, their work has made almost no dent on American historians, either the monographists who transmit only within the AHA, or the popularly talented from whom the reading public recollects its ideas of who Americans are. Between 1928 and 1934 Paul S. Taylor published five signal volumes of Mexican Labor in the United States, Manuel Gamio his perceptive Mexican Immigration to the United States, and Emory S. Bogardus his useful synopsis, The Mexican in the United States. Yet “Mexicans” did not figure even as hyphenated Americans in any of the US histories that came out before or during World War II. They were all, as a “Spanish-surnamed” author described New Mexico’s hispanos in 1940, “forgotten people” in American history and society.

After more sociology published just after the war, and the culmination of Carey McWilliams’s brave, solid, and brilliant reportage in North from Mexico (now published in a new edition), they did receive their first historical consideration, brief but wise, in Oscar Handlin’s The American People in the Twentieth Century (1954). But despite still more sociology and Octavio Paz’s fascinating essay on pachucos in The Labyrinth of Solitude, they soon faded back almost into oblivion. They received notice again only from Handlin, three tiny references in his grand synthesis, The Americans (1963). Even in 1966 la raza remained, as another “Spanish-surnamed” author subtitled yet another attempt to bring it fully into the public view, “forgotten Americans.”

Because of the United Farmworkers, the Tijerina rebellion, and the Chicano movement, books on “Mexican Americans” are now coming out in a rush. For a while the hottest topic was the farmworkers, who are not all “Mexican Americans,” and in particular Cesar Chavez, who is. Chavez himself has approved Mark Day’s Forty Acres, which is the name the Delano strikers gave their headquarters. Mostly an insider’s account of the union’s tribulations from 1967 to 1970, the book is best at conveying the innocence of the freshly indignant, who, blind to the odds against them, fight until they win.

Much more composed is Joan London’s and Henry Anderson’s So Shall Ye Reap. A sober and lucid report on “the long effort of agricultural workers in California to organize themselves,” it traces the endeavors of the early unions in the 1920s and 1930s and the complicated intra- and extramural battles of the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU), the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU), and the AFL-CIO’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Most of the book is on four men especially memorable from the campaigns of the last twenty years: Thomas McCullough, the priest who first seriously engaged the Church in defending farmworker unions; Fred Van Dyke, a “grower” who supported the unionizing (and lost his farm); Ernesto Galarza, an intellectual free agent, who fought like the hedgehog and the fox for the NFLU, the NAWU, and the AWOC; and finally Cesar Chavez, “The Organizer.”

Of all the recent books on farmworkers, the truest is Peter Matthiessen’s Sal Si Puedes. It was born in a deathly time, in the wretched summer of 1968, after the assassinations, the riots, and the mournful mud of Resurrection City, when Matthiessen journeyed to Delano to interview “one of the few public figures that I would go ten steps out of my way to meet.” Courting disaster, he expected Chavez to “impress” him. If Chavez had, and Matthiessen had taken it, the book would have been only another exposé of one more fraud by one more exhibitionist. But on the quiet Sunday morning when he received Matthiessen at his house, walked with him to early Mass, and drove out to Forty Acres to sit and visit with him, Chavez was just himself—which “startled” Matthiessen. The result is this splendid and inspiring book.

It is not a biography in style or purpose. Only at random Matthiessen concedes Chavez’s past—one of six kids on a family farm in the Gila Valley, at ten thrown into the Great Depression’s western migrations, at fourteen done with school, at eighteen a navy enlisted man (two years on a destroyer escort out of Saipan), after the war following the crops again, at twenty-one married and settling to sharecrop outside San Jose, moving again to cut timber on the Smith River, settling again to a lumberyard job in San Jose, living in its Mextown, Sal Si Puedes (Get Out If You Can), actually getting out in the 1950s as a paid organizer for the CSO, then its statewide coordinator, then its national director. He does not even suggest why Chavez, hobnobbing with congressmen, hustling mayors and legislators, meeting in “the best motel in town,” quit it all in 1962 to settle his wife and eight kids in Delano and start building from scratch without violence a movement that had always before failed, a farm workers’ union.

But Matthiessen does have the man Chavez has become as alive as he can be in print, “an Indian’s bow nose and lank black hair,…sad eyes and an open smile that is shy and friendly,…centered in himself so that no energy is wasted,…as unobtrusive as a rabbit,…’so stubborn, so irrational—oh, he can be a sonofabitch!’…praising, teasing, needling, cajoling, comforting, and gently chastising,” full of tales, organizing even in his sleep, and constantly in danger of assassination. Because Chavez gave him the nerve to write in praise without idolatry or shame, Matthiessen gives others the nerve to believe that “warmth and intelligence and courage, even in combination, did not account for what I felt at the end of the four-hour walk on that first Sunday morning…. What welled out of him was a phenomenon much spoken of in a society afraid of its own hate, but one that I had never seen before—or not, at least, in anyone unswayed by drugs or aching youth; the simple love of man that accompanies some ultimate acceptance of self.”

Chavez bores many professional Chicanos, who think that his rural concerns bore the barrios and that non-violence is crazy for Brown Berets under a hysterical policeman’s gun; Corky has insinuated that Chavez is an idiot. But Matthiessen shows Chavez already containing more power than his nationalist carnales have yet dreamed of releasing, through the “impossible gaiety” he spreads in the desperate struggle against American selfishness, the invincible faith he has fortified in a “New American Revolution.”

Last spring Chavez finally returned to his beginnings, to organize the Arizona valleys where thirty-five years ago the country seized his father’s farm for taxes. The “growers” think the union is “bad for the country.” And the Arizona legislature has passed a law that prohibits farmworkers from striking, picketing, and boycotting. When the workers protested, Governor Jack Williams observed, “As far as I’m concerned, these people do not exist.” Chavez has called for massive civil disobedience in Arizona on August 15, the day the law is to go into effect. The “simple love” Matthiessen felt is now defying the state itself, to test its interest in injustice.

For a while Tijerina also excited crowds of writers. Of all the reports on him, the most thorough and engaging is Richard Gardner’s ¡Grito! It is a deft weaving of straight agrarian history of northern New Mexico, sensitive accounts of contemporary life in its towns and out in its woods, and a canny biography of Tijerina himself in triumph and in court, thick throughout with nice quotes from locals pro and con. The book is dense, for Gardner respects the hispanos and Tijerina’s weird vision too much to gut the subject of its intricacy; but the writing is crisp and clean.

Now the publishers are pushing sets of “readings.” At least six have come out in the last couple of years, most of them so inanely edited that they do not merit mention as collections. Just passable is Edward Simmen’s Pain and Promise, thirty-odd articles (twenty from “Spanish-surnamed” authors) that fit into a plausible guide to “the Chicano today.”

The only collection commendable for more than meeting an emergency in the market, for being a book in its own right, is Luis Valdez’s and Stan Steiner’s Aztlán. Valdez’s introduction is the most assured, eloquent, and intriguing statement so far of the professional Chicano ideology, complete with rancid cracks about “eternal foreigners” from Europe. The notes introducing each selection, which smack of Steiner, are concise and apt. The order of the selections (130-odd of them!) is constructive. The selections themselves are 85 percent of them from “Spanish-surnamed” authors; they include the best lot of Chicano short stories and poems now at hand in the East. Especially welcome are the pieces on the barrios and the bits on Chicanas, the Albuquerque walkout, the blowouts, the El Paso and Denver conferences, the Brown Berets, the Comancheros del Norte, the Church, and Chicano theater.

The editors commit only a few gaffes—like ordaining Bernal Díaz and supposing Don Porfirio to have said, “Pobres de México….” The value of the collection is less than it could have been, because, as Valdez observes, “When the writer is a victim of racism and colonization,…the poet in him flounders in a morass of lies and distortions about his conquered people.” Because neither Valdez nor Steiner knows enough about Mexico to have avoided swallowing the theosophical sinkers in Mexican Indianism, they waste pages on Mayans and Aztecs that would have been better spent, for instance, on the hispano diaspora, long the leaven in “Spanish-speaking” business and politics throughout the Southwest; El Paso, for two generations now the main source of sartorial, linguistic, and social styles in the barrios; the Sinarquista movement, the first serious touting of la raza in the United States; GI ordeals, during and after the war; work in the plants; programs and practices of CSO, MAPA, PASO, etc.; recent experiences in the “service,” above all in Indochina; and the Raza Unida parties—all of which they omit. But at least the editors have shaped an argument.

Dwarfing these collections is the immense report by Leo Grebler, Joan W. Moore, and Ralph C. Guzman, The Mexican-American People. Ten years ago this was a gleam in the eye of a slew of professors, each beseeching the foundations for funds to go after the “Spanish-surnames” in the 1960 census. It became Grebler’s baby in 1963 when he won a “generous” grant (reportedly $400,000) from Ford for his Mexican-American Study Project at UCLA. With Moore, a sociologist, as associate and Guzman, a political scientist, as assistant, and a supplementary grant from the College Entrance Examination Board, Grebler, himself an economist, directed a team of some twenty “collaborating scholars” through probably 2,000 interviews and five years of research and reporting. The product is easily the most comprehensive and rigorous study now available of “the nation’s second largest minority.”

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