Cesar Chavez: The Tireless Crusader

A Review of A Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers' Movement
by Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval

Author Biography

Susan Ferriss is the Mexico City correspondent for Cox Newspapers. She has won numerous awards from the Associated Press for her work. Her documentary The Golden Cage has won top awards at many film festivals. Ricardo Sandoval is a reporter with the San Jose Mercury News, based in Mexico City. He was born in Mexico, and his parents worked on lettuce and tomato fields in San Diego County.

Immigrants have always been a necessary yet often despised part of society. No group fits this description better than those from Mexico. For years, they labored in our nation, working long hours for low pay. However, some individuals decided to change their condition. One of these individuals was Cesar Chavez; in The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement, Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval chronicle the labor leader’s struggle for Chicanos’ rights as he “reached out to touch millions of Americans.”1 The authors believe his concern for his fellow laborers’ well-being changed America for the better.

Born on March 31st, 1927, as the second of five children, Cesar Chavez was raised on his family’s two-generation-old farm in Arizona. However, the Chavezes’ prosperity did not keep them immune from the effects of the Great Depression. Slowly but surely, the family watched its assets slip away into oblivion. Faced with hunger and homelessness, the family trudged off to California in search of jobs. What Cesar and his family discovered there was shocking. Immigrant laborers had no rights, and farms’ growers regularly discriminated against Mexicans and Chicanos (Americans of Mexican descent). Perhaps inspiring Cesar for his life ahead, his parents were never afraid to walk off the job in protest, no matter how futile the cause or effort seemed to be. Dropping out of school in eighth grade, Cesar devoted himself to working and adding to the family’s income. He would have been doomed to remain a farm worker, had he not met Fred Ross in June 1952. Ross, an organizer with the Community Service Organization in Los Angeles, helped immigrant populations register to vote and have a say in politics. Chavez gave himself entirely to the CSO, often not seeing his wife and children when he got home. As the leader inside him began to emerge, Chavez set up a CSO chapter in Oakland and began to think about branching out into organizing farm workers, his lifelong dream. After becoming involved in the bracero controversy, where farm owners would import Mexicans for cheaper work over local Chicanos, Chavez finally, yet painfully, decided to split with the CSO and move to Delano, California, to begin organizing farm workers. Little did Cesar know that he would soon “go through hell because it was all but an impossible task.”2

By 1962, Chavez arrived in Delano and set to work. He and his helpers, including Dolores Huerta from his days at the CSO, set out questionnaires in local markets and stores, asking workers what they wanted improved about their working conditions. Chavez soon became critical of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, and formed the National Farm Workers Association. At the September 30th, 1962, founding convention, they unveiled the new organization’s symbol: the Aztec Eagle, containing “white for hope, black for the plight of the workers, and red for the sacrifice that would be required of them.”3 The NFWA’s first goal was to get farm workers a $1.50 an hour minimum wage and unemployment insurance. Throughout this ordeal, the Cesar’s entire family struggled financially. In December 1941, El Malcriado debuted. This farm worker newspaper informed the workers and occasionally provided them with comic relief. By March 1951, a small group of immigrant workers successfully received a pay raise from Mount Arbor Roses. At this time, Chavez realized a much larger membership was required in the NFWA in order to make an impact. Soon after, the AWOC’s Filipino workers went on strike, and the NFWA tentatively gave its support. Chavez and his supporters proceeded to picket the 4500-acre Schenley vineyard in what came to be known as the Great Delano Grape Strike. Growers responded aggressively to the grape strike and refused to budge on wages. The Delano Police Department, in turn, arrested dozens of picketers and strikers, providing unintentional publicity for the cause. In early December, the boycott extended to Schneley Industries’ liquor brands. The United Auto Workers’ and Robert Kennedy’s support at this time proved indispensable to the NFWA. In the famous pilgrimage, or pilgrimación, of March 1966, Chavez and hundreds of supporters marched three hundred miles to Sacramento. Schenley Industries finally relented, giving workers a 35¢ raise and a brand new hiring hall for union activities. Flushed with success, the Chavez still knew that “Schenley was just one of dozens of grape growers who had been holding out against the union;” much work remained to be done.4

Another corporate farm-owner, DiGiorgio, refused to cooperate with the NFWA. This led to another boycott, this time against DiGiorgio and its S&W and TreeSweet brands. Picketing began at stores selling their products and soon spread to other cities. San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City all were bastions of support for the NFWA’s cause. DiGiorgio, working with the corrupt Teamsters Union, set union elections for June 24; the NFWA boycotted them. By the time the NFWA and AWOC merged to become the United Farm Workers, DiGiorgio acknowledged them and grudgingly established health and welfare funds for its workers. Another company, Perelli-Minetti, signed with the UFW in July 1967. In the summer of 1967, the UFW set its sights on Giumarra Vineyards. However, by January 1968, the UFW began a boycott of all California table grapes. Angered by picketer’s occasional violence, Chavez took a twenty five-day fast, until the union members promised to remain peaceful. The boycott, meanwhile, extended to the Safeway grocery chain in the spring of 1969. Pittsburgh removed all California grapes from its grocery stores’ shelves, and, in Canada, Ontario and Toronto soon did the same. Detroit, Michigan, a union stronghold, quickly boycotted the grapes. By July 1969, California grape sales virtually stopped in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Montreal. Finally, by July 29th, the two main companies, Coachella and Dispoto, signed contracts with the UFW. In August and September 1970, Salinas workers walked off because growers had signed with the Teamsters. The UFW protested, so the Teamsters hired armed thugs to physically intimidate UFW sympathizers. However, a boycott of non-UFW lettuce forced InterHarvest and Purex to finally sign with the UFW. The continuation of the boycott let to the UFW gaining even more contracts by 1971. By this time, the UFW officially became part of the powerful AFL-CIO union. Nevertheless, victory was short-lived. After contracts with the UFW expired, most growers did not renew them; they instead signed with the Teamsters. Anytime picketers attempted to voice their outrage, police officers violently came down on them. By this time, 90% of the UFW’s former contracts were gone. Chavez and his associates realized that “it would be impossible to win long-lasting changes…without having the law on their side” or there would be “no end to the violence and the unfettered power of the ranchers.”5

By the summer of 1973, the UFW had ended the grape strike and stepped up the boycott of non-union lettuce and wine nationwide. However, many influential supporters, including the New York Times, viewed the cause as lost, angering many activists, including Cesar, Dolores Huerta, and Fred Ross, Jr. (two very loyal aids to Chavez). In June 1975, California enacted a law that guaranteed farm workers the right to defend themselves through unions; however, few growers obeyed the new law. Even the July 1975 “Thousand-Mile March” through California failed to change the growers’ minds; they barred the UFW from their fields, but welcomed the Teamsters Union with open arms. As the pro-union Agricultural Labor Relations Board faced funding shortages, the fall 1976’s Proposition 14, guaranteeing permanent funding, failed. At the same time, the infamous Teamsters began to fade away from the scene as their supporters in the government faced their own problems. Still, there were problems for the UFW. The unity that was so apparent earlier in their cause began to slowly crumble; some critics claimed that “the UFW was…becoming less democratic and that Chavez was consolidating his personal control over the union.”6 Also, strikes such as the Great Lettuce strike of 1979 were becoming more violent. Although a struggle over the control of the UFW rose in 1980 and some critics viewed Chavez as a dictator, farm workers had cause to celebrate. Workers had gained higher wages, medical plans, and other benefits. Still, some farms refused to hold elections in the early 1980s as the UFW lost some of its support and affectability. The UFW’s supporters were moving on, and workers still faced wretched living conditions; more illegal immigrants coming from Mexico also made the UFW’s work harder. Even worse, the new grape boycott was unsuccessful. Still, the UFW fought on to regain its stature, pushing to protect workers from dangerous pesticides and chemicals. However, Chavez’s work with the labor movement was coming to an end. Fred Ross, his old mentor, died in September 1993, and Chavez himself died later that year. He received his wish of a simple burial in an unvarnished coffin built by his brother, Richard. Finally, after so many years of dedication to a worthy cause, Cesar Chavez’s life came to an untimely death.

Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval, in writing this book, point out that “almost all the laws and protections farmworkers [sic] now have are the fruit of Cesar Chavez’s legacy.”7 Workers now enjoy higher wages, medical insurance, unemployment insurance, and many other benefits unheard-of before Cesar Chavez’s noble crusade. Before, workers’ wages weren’t enough to buy food, shelter, or other necessities of life. Now, these farm workers can support themselves and their families with their new wages and benefits. The authors’ thesis is well supported throughout the book. They go into great detail about Chavez’s endless struggle for his fellow people, and give examples of the sacrifices he made in order to guarantee farm workers their newfound rights and privileges.

Both Ferriss and Sandoval carry assumptions and points of view that affect their feelings toward Cesar Chavez and his movement and add bias to the text. They explain that Chavez’s name “still summons fierce loyalty from those who admired him.”8 Ferriss and Sandoval both seem to follow this description. Although this might not make a substantial impact on their writing, it could still affect it. For example, they might gloss over any negative actions taken by Cesar Chavez or the United Farm Workers. Also, they could embellish any accomplishments made by Chavez or his organization. However, after carefully reviewing this book, one can see that this in fact does not take place. Ferriss and Sandoval are not afraid to point out Chavez’s shortcomings—such as his somewhat controlling attitude—or his failures, including the grape strike of the 1980s.

The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement was published in 1997; numerous events from this period influenced the writing of this book. The most obvious is the death of Cesar Chavez in 1993; since he was slowly fading away from people minds, there had to be a way to preserve his identity and accomplishments. Also, the new generation lacked the interaction the older generation had with the late labor leader. Thus, the older adults had to teach their children about the man who did so much for them. Also, at that time, specifically 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187 by a large majority. This proposition, if put into effect, would have essentially cut off all public services to illegal immigrants and their children. That meant no public healthcare or housing for the families and “would have kicked all the children of illegal immigrants out of California’s public schools.”9 However, a federal judge declared the law unconstitutional, but supporters hoped the United States Supreme Court would overturn the ruling. At such a pivotal moment for the Mexican American people, it was important to remind them of Cesar Chavez’s insistence on nonviolent protest. Many would have undoubtedly become angered by the results of the vote and pushed to perhaps riot or at least break a few windows. In addition, Chavez’s message of peace and understanding between the different races, and the mixing of different ethnicities in the UFW, is important at a time when Anglo-Americans and Chicanos are often at odds over immigrants and their rights. Thus, the turbulence of the mid-1990s was an important backdrop to Ferriss and Sandoval’s book.

After its publication, two influential and credible sources reviewed The Fight in the Fields. Hispanic and Booklist provide expert criticism that gives insight into the strengths and weaknesses of this biography. According to Hispanic’s Tony Cantu, this book is “written simply and succinctly” with the “sense of a novel’s plot.” The vocabulary isn’t too far ahead of most high school-level readers, and new terms, acronyms, and organizations are thoroughly explained by the authors. Also, the authors do in fact lend the biography a truly novel-like feel. The reader is always poised to turn the page, and most of the chapter ends act like cliffhangers, pushing the reader to continue. In a way, this helps the book detach itself from the tedious archetype most other educational biographies follow. Cantu goes in to state that the authors’ “probing research…gives [this book] a depth that is rare in today’s biographies.” The two authors truly put research and effort into this book, interviewing more than a dozen people that worked with Cesar Chavez throughout the years. Above all, Cantu makes clear that “Chavez’s intellectual conflicts with co-workers and the division that marked the UFW just a few years before his death are not whitewashed but are treated with candor.” Ferriss and Sandoval, while they admire the late labor leader, refuse to paint a false picture of a happy family leading a successful push for change. The authors do not shy away from writing about the UFW’s later problems and Chavez’s tendency to take more control than others deemed reasonable. Thus, according to Tony Cantu, The Fight in the Fields, “much like the life of its subject, is a triumph.”10

Booklist also writes about The Fight in the Fields. Although neither as long nor as eloquently-put as Hispanic’s, the review nonetheless give valuable information on this book. According to Donna Seaman, the biography, suitable “for most high-school [sic] collections,” is a “well-written biography of the dedicated labor leader.”11 Again, its language and diction make it easy for most high school-level readers to understand, and its comprehensive research makes it enough to stand on its own. While thorough and informative, Ferriss and Sandoval are far from sounding dreary or uninteresting; on the contrary, they make the farm workers movement both interesting and pleasurable to read.

The impact of Cesar Chavez and his tireless crusade cannot be overestimated. According to the authors, the UFW’s work “changed the lives of field laborers in ways that were unimaginable [before], improving wages and conditions so much that today a slice of the farmworker [sic] population can actually call itself middle class.”12 The lives of these people were forever changed, and the society around them was greatly affected as well. An entire culture earned dignity and rights that the previous generation lacked. An entire economy was shaken when its laborers decided to gain equal rights. Other people could now free themselves from the bigotry and racism their parents or even they once felt towards Mexican Americans. When attending a protest “in deeply conservative Tallahassee,” Chavez’s son-in-law noticed that “people drove by offering thumbs-up and honking horns.”13 Where normally one would expect rejection and slander, there is acceptance and support.

Even today, the United States is feeling the impact of the events described in this book. Our economy, forced to pay more for its farm laborers, has seen a write in staples such as lettuce, strawberries, and citruses. Also, the government—especially politicians wanting the votes of this newly empowered group—is doing more and more low-income families, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and low-income housing. Above all, however, America is feeling the impact on immigration. As more and more illegal immigrants enter this nation each year in search of work, Americans face the problem of what to do: keep them or remove them? Supporters of amnesty for illegal immigrants often bring up Cesar Chavez and his belief in helping everyone, no matter what their status or nationality.

Cesar Chavez “was a gift to the farm workers [and] to all people.” By heading the “drive to protect the rights of the working poor,” Chavez embedded himself into the history of this nation.14 The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement accomplishes its task of giving an account of this great man and his great aspiration.

review by Michael Sahimi

  1. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company. 1997, ix.
  2. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 63.
  3. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 73.
  4. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 123.
  5. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 189.
  6. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 211.
  7. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 3.
  8. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 3.
  9. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 278.
  10. Cantu, Tony. “Hispanic.” Washington: July/Aug 1997. Vol. 10, Iss. 7-8. 96.
  11. Seaman, Donna. “The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement.” Booklist, Apr. 1997. Vol. 93, Iss. 16. 1368.
  12. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 3.
  13. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 274.
  14. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval 268.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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