Monday, May 05, 2014

What We're Reading: The Crusades of Cesar Chavez

The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,
by Miriam Pawel

The Crusades of Cesar Chavez is a book that has received much praise for its detailed and comprehensive research, for being “bracingly honest,” for the “authenticity of its behind-the-scenes detail,” and for the portrait we get of a man who was “neither a saint nor a bully but a complex American activist who rose to the occasion with courage, astuteness, and intuition, but who was also clumsy, misinformed, and nearsighted.” It has been called, perhaps euphemistically, a “fully rounded” portrait. But however distanced and dis-impassioned the writing, and whatever the objective maturity, in kind, that reviewers seem to feel obliged to evince at what is, undoubtedly, a tough and formidable work, most readers who will read this book are likely to find the story told here painful. This is, with respect to Chavez’s popular image, a revisionist work. Reviewers have not talked much about that.  

While there are exceptions---we like to read about great villains for various reasons--- most people who pick up a biography do so because they admire some public figure, either vaguely or passionately, and want, in a sense, to develop their relationship by knowing something more intimate about them. Cesar Chavez, in his public image--during his lifetime and especially after his death--is one of a handful of American public figures who has been pulled from the mire and temporality of his times and placed in the eternal pantheon of the republic. We protect our mythic heroes, and after a while their stories, because of our need for them and their abiding usefulness, and so we become impervious to whispers and revision. Cesar Chavez embodied for the counter-culture generation many of its ideals about activism. He shared with them a set of social values and a similar vision of what they hoped their country might become. After much disillusionment and the admission of considerable naiveté about the way the world works and what the hearts of men might embrace, Cesar Chavez has endured for that generation as someone unmitigated and authentic. Dreams may die, but we always keep as salvage in our hearts a place of honor for the dreamers and the true believers.

It is important to note, as a consolation to those readers, that for all his faults that are on display in The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, Miriam Pawel leaves us with a portrait of Chavez as a true believer. He was an intuitive and brilliant organizer, but didn’t have the administrative and managerial skills necessary to consolidate many of his victories. He sometimes took actions that compromised some of his avowed beliefs, but his life was not a pose--he was not a confidence man. He worked long hours and lived a life of sacrifice, of poor and modest means. He wanted to empower poor people, not so that they could become middle class, but so that they could build a different kind of community among themselves, a community that would embrace the revolutionary social values and mores he felt were critical to keeping their movement alive. The ambiguity about whether he was leading a movement or a union was ever the source of tensions and missteps, something that fed the hurtful and often unjust purges from the UFW of those who had supported him for so long and dedicated their lives to the cause.

The problem with saints is that that in the process of being beatified into someone worthy of emulation, they can no longer be one of us; they have become by definition, something exceptional. They morph into people of simplified and idealized lives who we find useful in one sense but unapproachable in others. Miriam Pawel has restored Cesar Chavez to us as one of us, a person who struggled with difficult choices in complex times as he confronted an adamant and formidable array of established political and social forces. We have a genuine sense then, of what he achieved, and what he failed to achieve, and perhaps an understanding of why. These life lessons are one of the important reasons we read biographies. What, short of the performance of miracles, are our possibilities, we want to know? And consider this: Maybe what we want more than a public apotheosis is to be remembered not as symbols or abstractions or as saints but as the people we were.

The story Pawel tells was made possible because of the documentation and recordings that Chavez made and had others make. He knew all the recriminations and wrangles of the board meetings were being recorded for posterity. He was frank and forthcoming as well in the extensive interviews he gave. Chavez had a sense of being a part of history and he wanted to leave us with a record of how that history was made, for us to understand the struggles and failings as well as the triumphs. Yes, he helped craft his public image for its contemporary political returns, but he didn’t seem to be afraid to let posterity in the end be his judge.

Cesar Chavez was fond of saying that he “liked to raise a lot of hell.” He did that, and perhaps so too has his biographer. But Miriam Pawel has, however painful it may be to many of us to see Cesar Chavez step down from the realm of the blessed, restored a living and real Cesar Chavez to us. In the process she has told us an important story of our times, one that teaches us something about the difficult issues involved in making political and social change and about the nature of building and keeping power in our political system. Cesar Chavez emerges here as a figure who had greater faults than we have been taught to suppose, but also as an idealist who was gifted with remarkable practical skills and insight. He was perceptive about his legacy. He knew that what he had done was something bigger and more important than creating a union, that he had done something that would empower a generation of Hispanic Americans, and that his achievements would be an abiding source of inspiration and hope for the growing numbers of the poor and marginalized in our society. Si, se puedes!

Cesar Chavez with his dogs "Boycott" and "Huelga" (Strike).  Photo by Cathy Murphy

Please join us for a discussion of this book with its author, tonight (Tuesday night) at 7:00 p.m. at the Buena Vista branch. Books will be available for purchase, and Ms. Pawel will autograph. Teens may attend for extra credit, at their teachers' discretion.

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