Miriam Pawel is a Pulitzer-winning editor who is no stranger to the objective artistry of the biography. Her most recent work is an unflinching characterization of one of recent history’s more storied civil rights leaders. In a nine year effort to write “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” Pawel sources troves of archives, personal writings, and interviews more than 70 individuals to piece together a portrait of a man who was both monumentally inspiring and deeply flawed. Cesar Chavez was a man who was ultimately human.
A brief history of his childhood establishes Chavez as a hard-working individual with a heart yearning for a home. Though his own home was lost to his family, he ended up carrying with him a dream of establishing a home base for all migrant workers, a dream later realized at a compound called “40 Acres.” Chavez’ modest beginnings as a migrant field worker gave him a perspective that was also nearly lost in the politics and potential of “la causa,” a progressive vision of fair labor standards for farm workers.
While Chavez was fiercely committed to “la causa,” it often came into conflict with his personal philosophy on leadership; a philosophy focused on establishing centralized power based on fierce loyalty and endless hard work. In his journey from farm worker to national icon in the world of labor and unions, Chavez demonstrated a peculiar charisma that eventually isolated him from some of his earliest and most ardent supporters. Though he long resisted the terms associated with unions, Chavez eventually came to understand the desolation that can haunt a man and a community that resist national organizations wielding great power over their livelihood.
“Chavez had read widely about power. He studied Machiavelli, Mao, and Hitler, and borrowed tactics from each leader. But the man Chavez adopted as his role model was Gandhi.”
This particular characterization of his leadership style demonstrates the contradictions Pawel often identifies in Chavez’s leadership style. He emulated Gandhi’s personal form of protest through nonviolence and fasting, yet he also condoned the violence in the fields that intimidated many workers to join “la causa,” simply by turning a blind eye.
This contradiction did not prevent progress from being made. Decades of demonstrations, confrontations and negotiations raised the issues faced by many Americans who had previously been disenfranchised. Communities developed consistency in the chaos that follows the life of a farm worker. Mexican Americans became central to the cause and became empowered to demand higher standards of living, education, and health. Now, in a generation where Mexican Americans and other Latinos are a major demographic in the U.S., they are engaged in planning for their future, thanks to the efforts of the past.
Texas, Colorado and California continue to celebrate the legacy of Chavez and commemorate his memory every year on March 31, the anniversary of his birth. President Barack Obama has proclaimed this date to be “Cesar Chavez Day,” with Americans urged to “observe this day with appropriate service, community, and educational programs to honor Cesar Chavez’ enduring legacy.”
Marches, speeches, and renewed efforts to organize are all sparked simply by his memory. If this novel meets any criticism, it will be the author’s commitment to portraying Chavez not as a saint or icon, but as a larger than life leader who at times failed as a labor organizer.
The greater message may be in Chavez’ earliest description of himself as a “community organizer” and the lasting words of his efforts, “Si, se puede. Yes, we can.”
Miriam Pawel will discuss her book, “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” at 11 a.m. in the auditorium on the first floor of the Central Library.
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