Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

September 27, 2012


Host: José Cárdenas

“From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement”


  • We'll talk to Matt Garcia, director of Arizona State University's School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, about his new book "From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement", which brings to light the people who helped Chavez in making the organization succeed and also uncovers some of Chavez's secrets.
Guests:
  • Matt Garcia - Director, ASU School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies
Category: Vote 2010   |   Keywords: book, author, chavez, farm, worker, movement, ,

View Transcript
José Cárdenas: César Chávez was an American farm worker, civil rights activist, and labor leader who cofounded the National Farm Workers Association which later became the United Farm Workers known as the UFW. A new book, "From the Jaws of Tragedy" is about the history and rise and decline of united farm workers, the most successful farm union in United States history. Joining me tonight is Matt Garcia, author and also director of ASU's school of historical, philosophical, and religious studies. Thanks for joining us on Horizonte.We said new book. It's literally just been published.

Matt Garcia: Yes.

José Cárdenas: I'm sure it's going to attract attention and quite frankly controversy. Let me frame it with some lines from your epilogue where you say, for example, Chavez was no plaster saint, colorful and noble on the outside, hollow and void of substance on the inside. Chavez possessed many valuable qualities that inspired hundreds of volunteers to dedicate their lives to the union and millions of people around the world to rally. Then you talk about one of his characteristics, that single-minded doggedness that was the reason for that success, but then you go on to say it was also the reason for his downfall and the deterioration of the union. And by saying rather than continue to see Chavez in the narrow light of celebration, I have widened the lens to show him as the tragic hero he was. Such a perspective allows to us honor his tremendous virtues as a leader while not forgetting the perils that come with autocratic leadership. That kind of summarizes the book, where it starts and where it ends.

Matt Garcia: Right. I think there's been a lot of attention heaped on Chavez. We know the street names, the statues, even the programs that have been named after him, the postal stamps. But I think the obscure real lessons of the man and the lessons of his life; I say that he's a tragic hero because he came so close to achieving greatness, a national farm worker movement, but because of his own tendencies towards autocratic leadership, they failed.

José Cárdenas: I want to trace the story as you've developed it in your book. Before we do that, a little bit about your own background and how you came to do the book. You yourself are the grandson of farm workers.

Matt Garcia: That's right. And it's been a passion of mine. My first book was about the citrus workers of southern California. You could say I'm working on a trilogy. This is the second one. I'm looking for the third one about farm workers. I'm very committed to the understanding of what it takes to get social justice for farm workers, people like my grandmother.

José Cárdenas: This book 10 years in the making.

Matt Garcia: Yes. It started out as an attempt to tell the story from the bottom up. But as I got into the archives, the archives at Wayne state, Luther library, and as I talked to veterans of the movement, I found that I had to deal with Cesar's legacy.

José Cárdenas: The book became much more focused on him and the impact he had, but that wasn't your original intent, as you said.

Matt Garcia: Part of what I was trying to do -- and it makes its way into the book -- was to tell the history of the boycott, the grape boycott, that helped make the movement an international phenomenon and to persuade consumers to stop buying grapes to bring social justice for the farm workers in the field.

José Cárdenas: Before we talk about that, a little more about your sources. You made a reference to Wayne State University where the archives are. Those include hours of recorded conversations.

Matt Garcia: That's right. In the 1970s, as we know from Richard Nixon, all great leaders were taping themselves, and Cesar was no different. He taped many of the executive board meetings where his leadership skills were on full display. I had access to them only by digging. They were not archived. They were there in the archives but were not cataloged, I should say. It was by my persistence that they finally opened it to me, and I listened over the years and dug up these very revealing tapes.

José Cárdenas: You had other sources including one of the persons we'll mention later in this interview, Gilbert Padilla, who was involved with the union movement almost from the beginning.

Matt Garcia: That's right. When you said Dolores Huerta and Cesar were the ones that started it, we have to add Gil to the list. Gil was the predecessor to the UFW and then followed Cesar to the National Farm Workers Association that eventually became the UFW. Cesar and Gil were together all the way through.

José Cárdenas: We have a picture of Chavez with that CSO organization that we've got on the screen. This was his first experience in organizing. Right?

Matt Garcia: That's right. When you say that he -- or I said that he had dogged determination. It's that moment in the CSO that he makes the decision that CSO is not going to serve farm workers. They were mostly an urban organization, an organization committed to electoral politics, and it was -- Cesar had said this organization is not the one that's going to deliver justice. I'm going to have to start my own. He moved to central valley and started it.

José Cárdenas: He learned from some of the people in that picture some of the basics of community organization. Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross, his mentor, and others such as that. He goes and starts the farm workers organization and comes to the boycott as a means of obtaining the success they couldn't achieve in the field.

Matt Garcia: In fact, he was convinced to do it. Right? He didn't believe that it was a critical strategy when they started. He thought the strike was the strategy. Right? The boycott was something to do between harvests. In fact, the boycott became the sequence of the movement. In the book, I talk about how in 1969 and the early part of the 1970s, when the boycott became international, that's when the pressure on growers forced them to the tables and forced them to sign the first contracts with farm workers in the history of California.

José Cárdenas: And we're talking about the boycott of grapes.

Matt Garcia: That's right.

José Cárdenas: There's a lot of discussion about the different strategies and how to do a boycott and some pessimistic reaction by Chavez to the initial efforts, but he became convinced that that was the way to go.

Matt Garcia: Yeah. And it was mostly a multicultural movement, young students from all walks of life, Pilipino and Mexican farm workers going well outside of their comfort zone to places like Boston and Toronto and Montreal and carrying that message. It was the success in those areas in the cities that brought justice for the farm workers in the field.

José Cárdenas: And they were getting people to decide not to buy the grapes as a measure of support, gesture of support for the farm workers.

Matt Garcia: That's right. In fact, initially it was not well orchestrated, but there was a young man whose name was Jerry Brown, and he was a grad student --

José Cárdenas: We're not talking about Governor Jerry Brown.

Matt Garcia: Not governor Jerry Brown. Another Jerry brown who said, if we could just lessen the number of grapes going to each one of these cities, the ten top cities in America by 10 percent, we'll force the growers into a deal. They did that in Chicago and Boston. Forty percent reduction.

José Cárdenas: Chavez was not the only labor leader who questioned the effectiveness of a boycott. Organized labor, people like Walter Luther. We've got a very famous picture of César Chávez with Walter Luther that we'll put on the screen. They questioned whether a boycott made sense.

Matt Garcia: That's definitely true, and that's because Cesar essentially was conflating his civil rights movement with the labor movement. The labor movement had supported themselves by strikes by appealing to allied workers. But to go out to consumers and have consumers be essentially the leveraging point for justice, that was unheard of. But Chavez was able to do that, and he rode the sentiments of the civil rights movement that was started in the African-American civil rights movement and all the other movements going on in the late '60s and pulled that lever for social justice for farm workers.

José Cárdenas: Now, eventually most of organized labor was at least supportive, at least sympathetic, but you also chronicle the very fierce, intense battles with the Teamsters for control of the workers in California.

Matt Garcia: Right. Well, the Teamsters were not foreign to the field necessarily. Many people believed that they just came in, were interlopers. In fact they had contracts prior to the UFW's formation. They were organizers of forklift drivers and packing house workers. But they were really not adept at reaching the sentiments of the Mexican people and the Filipino people. They were mostly an Anglo organization, and they really couldn't bridge that gap. In fact they were often very condescending. When many of the votes that went against them happened, they turned, and that's well documented.

José Cárdenas: Now, you mentioned several times so far the Filipinos who also were working in the fields with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. The Teamsters eventually had some success with them in part because of their disaffection with the UFW.

Matt Garcia: This is where people stop telling the story frequently. I continue. The United Farm Workers was not an experienced union. It I didn't know how to run hiring halls, didn't know how to manage workers. In fact, they dropped the ball. From 1970 to 1973, the first three years, they didn't know how to dispatch workers. The Teamsters was an experienced union, and they offered an alternative. Now, they were, as they say, in bed with the growers, but they also offered a product that was more attractive in particular to Filipino workers, and so they started to peel off in the 1970s, in 1973, in favor of the Teamsters.

José Cárdenas: Now, we have the development then of a strategy that focused on state law, the agricultural labor relations act in California which Chavez initially endorsed, in fact entirely endorsed as a solution to gaining dominance over the Teamsters and also getting those contracts. That strategy ultimately failed.

Matt Garcia: Well, it failed primarily, I argue, because of César Chávez's withdrawal from that solution. And it's complex. First of all, the law was flawed. By and large, the United Farm Workers won the election.

José Cárdenas: But then the state legislature was more pro-grow or responded by cutting funding.

Matt Garcia: They ran out of funding about six months in, and so Chavez decided that he was going to redirect the resources on the boycott to winning a campaign for a proposition, proposition 14.

José Cárdenas: That would have ensured funding for the agricultural labor relations board, and that was a devastating failure for the union which you then say led to a decline or kind of a retrenchment by Chavez and made the union less democratic. How so?

Matt Garcia: Well, he needed to blame someone for why they failed. They'd been so successful up to that point, and Chavez turned to the young boycott organizers who he accused of dragging their heels coming from those cities back to California. And in fact it was his decision. Why was it an undemocratic union? Because they had never stopped to create a democratic structure. So Chavez essentially had all of the power to dictate what strategy they were pursuing. So even though he blamed the boycott workers, it was he who decided that proposition 14 was going to be the mechanism to fund ALRA into the future. When it failed, he looked for conspirators against him.

José Cárdenas: And he became increasingly isolated. You talk about the influence of the founder of Synanon and the game. Explain that.

Matt Garcia: Synanon was this drug rehabilitation center that became a religion in 1974, led by a man named Chuck Dietrich, and he had all control over this organization. It was a compound. It was an intentional community. And he had a game. They called it the game. It was an exercise, an encounter group where people were shamed by being outed amongst their peers. Chavez saw the value of this. He said if I could use that at UFW and the headquarters at La Paz, I could find the conspirators.

José Cárdenas: The game was used most famously perhaps on somebody that had been intimately involved with the union a gentleman by the name of Phillip De La Cruz. We've got a picture of him to show, too.

Matt Garcia: I argue that the game actually influenced --

José Cárdenas: The gentleman in the middle here?

Matt Garcia: That's right. I say that the game, while practiced in La Paz and somewhat separate of the executive board, began to influence relations on the executive board. So that fateful day and evening when Vera Cruz was expelled, it had a game-like quality. They were setting him up. They were very abusive. Later on Gil Padilla said it was the worst thing they'd ever done.

José Cárdenas: We've got a picture of Gil, too, we want to put on the screen. He was one of your principal sources. Tell us about his role in the union and his perspective on the UFW and César Chávez.

Matt Garcia: Gil was there, as I said, in the very beginning. For the book, he's most important because he's the first one who said, we need to tell the history of the UFW warts and all. We didn't complete the task, and Cesar wasn't the saint that everybody makes him out to be. I want to tell that story. He's in his 80s and basically ready to come clean. Fortunately for me, I was born at the right time to talk to the veterans who were all ready to speak, but it was Gil that basically led the way.

José Cárdenas: Matt Garcia thank you for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about your new book.

Matt Garcia: Thank you, José.

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