An Organizer's Tale: Speeches (Penguin Classics)

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9780143105268: An Organizer's Tale: Speeches (Penguin Classics)

The first major collection of writings by civil rights leader Cesar Chavez

One of the most important civil rights leaders in American history, Cesar Chavez was a firm believer in the principles of nonviolence, and he effectively employed peaceful tactics to further his cause. Through his efforts, he helped achieve dignity, fair wages, benefits, and humane working conditions for hundreds of thousands of farm workers. This extensive collection of Chavez's speeches and writings chronicles his progression and development as a leader, and includes previously unpublished material. From speeches to spread the word of the Delano Grape Strike to testimony before the House of Representatives about the hazards of pesticides, Chavez communicated in clear, direct language and motivated people everywhere with an unflagging commitment to his ideals.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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About the Author:

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author or editor of numerous books.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PENGUINCLASSICS

AN ORGANIZER’S TALE

CESAR CHAVEZ was a civil rights and labor leader, a farmworker, a crusader for nonviolent social change, and an environmentalist and consumer advocate. He was born on March 31, 1927, near his family’s farm in Yuma, Arizona. His family lost their farm in the Great Depression and became migrant farm workers when Chavez was ten. Throughout his youth and into his adulthood, he migrated across the Southwest, laboring in the fields and vineyards, where he was exposed to the hardships and injustices of farmworker life. After achieving only an eighth-grade education, Chavez left school to work in the fields full-time to support his family. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1946 and served in the western Pacific in the aftermath of World War II. Chavez’s life as a community organizer began in 1952 when he joined the Community Service Organization (CSO), a prominent Latino civil rights group. While with the CSO, he coordinated voter registration drives and conducted campaigns against racial and economic discrimination primarily in urban areas. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Chavez served as CSO’s national director.

In 1962, he resigned from the CSO to found the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America. For more than three decades Chavez led the first successful farmworkers union in American history, achieving dignity, respect, fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits, and humane living conditions for hundreds of thousands of farmworkers. Chavez led successful strikes and boycotts that resulted in the first industry-wide labor contracts in the history of American agriculture. His union’s efforts brought about the passage of the groundbreaking 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act to protect farmworkers. Today it remains the only law in the nation that protects the farmworkers’ right to unionize.

A strong believer in the principles of nonviolence practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez effectively employed peaceful tactics such as fasts, boycotts, strikes, and pilgrimages. In 1968 he fasted for twenty-five days to affirm his personal commitment and that of the farm labor movement to nonviolence. He fasted again for twenty-five days in 1972, and in 1988, at the age of sixty-one, he endured a thirty-six-day “Fast for Life” to highlight the harmful impact of pesticides on farmworkers and their children. Chavez died on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona.


ILAN STAVANS is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five-College 40th Anniversary Professor at Amherst College. His books include The Hispanic Condition (1995), The Riddle of Cantinflas (1998), The Essential Ilan Stavans (2000), On Borrowed Words (2001), Spanglish (2003), Dictionary Days (2005), The Disappearance (2006), and Love and Language (2007). He is the editor of, among other works, Growing Up Latino (1994), The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays (1998), and The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (2003). He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Latino Hall of Fame Award, Chile’s Presidential Medal, the Rubén Darío Medal, and the National Jewish Book Award. Stavans writes a newspaper column syndicated throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

CESAR CHAVEZ

An Organizer’s Tale

SPEECHES

Edited with an Introduction by
ILAN STAVANS

PENGUIN BOOKS

Introduction byILAN STAVANS

Suggestions for Further Reading

Chronology

A Note on the Text

AN ORGANIZER’S TALE

We Shall Overcome

On the NFWA

A Penitential Procession

The Plan of Delano

An Organizer’s Tale

Recapping the Mission

Marcher

An Age of Miracles

Chicanos and the Church

After the Fast

Before the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare

Good Friday Letter

Creative Nonviolence

Before the House of Representatives

The Union and the Strike

Sharing the Wealth

No More Cathedrals

At Harvard

Jesus’s Friendship

An Assortment of Responses

Forty Acres

Twenty Days in Jail

Nothing Has Changed

At Riverside Church

At Exposition Park

On Money

Why Delano

To Be a Man Is to Suffer for Others

Do We Exist?

Regaining the Strength

Nan Freeman

Juan de la Cruz

In Coachella

After a Bus Accident

Before the Automobile Workers

The Chavez Mystique

Martin Luther King Jr., I

Martin Luther King Jr., II

Rufino Contreras

What Is Democracy?

René López

Before the 7th UFWA Constitutional Convention

At the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco

Wrath of Grapes

At Pacific Lutheran University

On Public Schools

Sal Si Puedes

Juana Estrada Chavez

Fred Ross


Aphorisms

Introduction

“The end of all knowledge should be service to others,” Cesar Chavez once said. He ought to know. A man of deep faith, he spent his life organizing people, in particular mexicanos, hoping to better their lot. From his humble beginning in Arizona as a migrant worker to his rise in status of national idol, his mantra was familiar: justice, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. Poverty was his prime target. Farmworkers, he often argued, are involved in the planting, cultivating, and harvesting of an abundance of food. Isn’t it ironic, then, and even tragic, that they don’t have enough food to feed themselves? To be aware of the miserable labor conditions of migrants and not do anything was to become an accomplice. Nobody should be forgotten in America.

Chavez belongs to a time, the latter half of the twentieth century, when the United States underwent a profound demographic makeover, which itself opened up a reevaluation of the nation’s collective identity. For centuries, the United States had accepted immigrants from the Old World (Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, France…), but after World War II the waves of newcomers from the so-called Third World intensified. This trend started with the Spanish-American War of 1898, but only in the 1950s did it become apparent that a different type of ethnic ingredient was now present. Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, to name only three Spanish-speaking groups, dramatically increased their numbers from midcentury onward, as did Filipinos, Chinese, Nigerians, Senegalese, and Francophone Caribbean peoples. Their arrival announced a redrawing of the political map and a reconfiguration of the culture as a whole. A different type of leader was needed, one capable of drawing attention to the plight of a heterogeneous underclass.

Chavez’s maturity as a speaker representing the undocumented indigents in the fields coincided with the civil rights ferment. Time and again, he emphasized that the anxiety of the era wasn’t exclusively about the deteriorated relations between whites and blacks, as it’s still being perceived today. It was about another type of American, an invisible, silent one who performed menial jobs for a pittance. His quest, then, was two-pronged: improve working conditions and recognize the protean quality of the nation’s ethnic mosaic. He wanted people to concede that the United States now lived in Technicolor.


Named after his grandfather, Cesario Estrada Chavez was born to Librado and Juana Chavez on March 31, 1927, on a small farm near Yuma, Arizona. On August 29, 1937, when Chavez was ten years old, the state took possession of the family ranch, which they had owned since the 1880s. A year later, Librado Chavez left home with several relatives to look for work in California, where he found a job threshing beans in Oxnard, a small town near the coast an hour north of Los Angeles. Librado wrote home to Juana telling her to come with the children. Thus, the Chavezes became a family of migrant workers.

The physical conditions of itinerant labor were awful—and, to a large extent, they still are today. Workers, adults and children alike, labored fifteen-hour shifts under the inclement sun. They moved seasonally from one state to another, from field to field, depending on need. Payment per hour was notoriously low, way under the minimum wage. No benefits were granted. Housing, too, was sparse. Families of six to eight members lived in a single room without a toilet. Worse even was the degrading attitude of the employers, for whom the Mexicans were simply subhuman, one individual indistinguishable from another.

Interest in the farmworkers’ plight as a national issue began in the late thirties and early forties. Fred Ross and some other followers of Saul Alinsky (the author of Reveille for Radicals and considered the father of community organizing, responsible for the organizing of the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago, which appears in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) looked away from major metropolitan areas to the countryside as their theater of action. There was also concern among intellectuals and in the media. Carey McWilliams, an editor of The Nation, was captivated by the changes under way in the state of California. He was also gripped by the atrocious circumstances in which migrant labor lived. McWilliams published a couple of seminal works connecting the two topics: Factories in the Field and Ill Fares the Land. Likewise, Edward R. Morrow, the radio and TV anchorman known as the face of CBS News, who later went after Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, made migrant workers a focus of his coverage.

As was the case with all migrant children, Chavez’s schooling was a series of interruptions. Overall, he attended some thirty elementary and middle schools. The experience left him scarred. In an interview with Jacques E. Levy, part of Autobiography of La Causa, he said that getting to school was a chore. “I never liked it,” he maintained:

They made me go, so I went, but they always had to push me to go. It wasn’t the learning I hated, but the conflicts. The teachers were very mean. I also didn’t like sitting in the class-room. I was bored to death. I’d just go to sleep. Once the teacher even sent a note home saying I was ill, that I had to be taken to the doctor because I was always falling asleep.

Chavez was part of a generation of Mexican Americans (the term “Chicano,” in circulation since 1937, became fashionable in the sixties) for which Mexico was the country of their past, where their heritage lay. But, having crossed the border, his parents became an integral part of the fabric of the United States. He spoke unschooled Spanish, but, as he later recalled, teachers insisted migrant children learn English. “They said that if we were American, then we should speak the language, and if we wanted to speak Spanish, we should go back to Mexico.”

Throughout his life, he remained loyal to el español. Of the scores of transcriptions of his speeches collected in the Farm Workers Archive at Walter P. Reuther Library, at Detroit’s Wayne State University, a handful are in Spanish. Some, like “Peregrinación, penitencia, revolución,” a rendition of the legendary piece “The Plan of Delano,” have been published. Associates lent him a hand in the endeavor. The extent to which Chavez was able to write freely in Cervantes’s tongue is debatable. In any case, by then he already recognized the value of articulating one’s thoughts coherently. “A language,” he said, “is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.”

In a way, the tension between his two languages, Spanish and English, was a symptom of Chavez’s dual status, which troubled him deeply. Was he an American, like all the white kids in the different schools he attended? It seemed to him that his Mexicanness—la mexicanidad, in Spanish—conferred a second-class status. That status, in his mind, was intricately linked to work. As John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, about a fictional family of Dust Bowl refugees, eloquently portrays, the crash of 1929 turned a vast number of people in the Southwest into drifters.

Life for migrant workers meant no home, no secure job, not even the promise of food after a day in the fields. It was a nerve-wracking existence. Families felt uprooted; the Chavezes, and hundreds of others like them, didn’t belong anywhere. He looked back on his early years as a period of anxiety and was appalled by how widespread the sense of deprivation was. In “An Organizer’s Tale,” one of Chavez’s most introspective pieces, he stated: “There are vivid memories from my childhood—what we had to go through because of low wages and the conditions, basically because there was no union.” He added: “I went through a lot of hell, and a lot of people did.” Actually, the lack of a union (el sindicato) was, in retrospect, a feature of his ordeal. Chavez recognized that lack when, in 1941, at the age of fourteen, he first encountered a union. Members of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) came to his house to talk to Librado and his brother about organizing with other workers.

After the eighth grade, he quit school and worked in the fields to help support the family. World War II was under way and Chavez, like thousands of other mexicanos, was ready to serve his country. He wanted to flee from the harsh working conditions that beat him down day after day—heat, exhaustion, boredom, and under-payment. In 1946, once the war was over, he joined the navy as a deck hand. He served in the western Pacific.


In the forties, when the Chavez family was living in Delano, signs that read “No dogs or Mexicans allowed!” weren’t uncommon. The Zoot Suit Riots and the Sleepy Lagoon Murder are representative of the ethnic volatility in California at that time. In a cauldron of racial hostility, the movie theaters were segregated. The left-hand side was reserved for Anglos and Japanese customers. Just before departing for his service in the Pacific, in a move fore-shadowing Rosa Parks’s courage a decade later in Alabama, Chavez defied the ban. When the authorities asked him to give up his seat, he refused. He didn’t put up a fight. It would be his first stay in prison.

Two years later, Chavez married Helen Fabela, whom he had met while working the vineyard fields in San Jose, California. Together they had eight children. The family moved to San Jose and lived in a neighborhood nicknamed Sal Si Puedes (in Spanish, “escape if you can”), where they joined the congregation of Father Donald McDonnell. It was through Father McDonnell that Chavez began to read voraciously and became mesmerized by St. Francis, who preached abs...

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