July 1997, Volume 3, Number 3
PBS Airs Chavez Documentary
On April 16, 1997, PBS aired a two-hour documentary "The Fight in
the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers' Struggle," made by Ray
Telles and Rick Tejada-Flores. The film emphasized the ability of
Chavez to make connections between labor unions, community
organizations, poor minority groups and the rest of American society
and repeats the themes covered in "Chicano," the multi-part film
shown in 1996 on PBS.
Hollywood producers Robert Katz and Moctesuma Esparza, buoyed by
the success of their film on Tejano singer Selena, announced that
they are developing a Warner Bros. film on Chavez and the UFW.
A pictorial book, "The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the
Farmworkers Movement," accompanied the PBS special. Written by
reporters for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Jose Mercury
News, Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval respectively, this book was
widely criticized for romanticizing Chavez and the UFW.
The book highlights Chavez's ability to define issues in a way
that linked haves and have-nots in effective coalitions that gained
national prominence, a pride in his Mexican heritage that did not
inhibit his ability to work in multiracial coalitions (notably with
Filipino immigrant workers) and his Gandhi-inspired skill in playing
power politics without ceding the moral high ground.
According to the filmmakers/authors, the book also deals with
criticisms of Chavez and the UFW--its flirtation with Synanon, the
drift toward an autocratic leadership, widespread dissent within the
ranks and the mistreatment of undocumented workers in Arizona.
In a mid-1980s speech, Chavez noted that social change is not
reversible: "Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You
cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot
humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people
who are not afraid anymore."
Cesar Chavez was born on March 31, 1927, and there were several
events in 1997 to mark what would have been his 70th birthday. Arturo
Rodriguez, UFW president, made brief appearances before both houses
of the California Legislature to commemorate what would have been
Chavez's 70th birthday and to draw attention to the PBS film. Chavez
died on April 22, 1993.
The Recorder on May 16, 1997 included an interview with Jerome
Cohen, who met Cesar Chavez in a Delano bar in 1967, and went on to
serve as general counsel for the United Farm Workers Union of America
until 1981. Just after joining the UFW, the UFW called a strike
against Giumarra Vineyards in Delano, the largest table grape grower.
At 10 pm on July 25, 1970, Giumarra met for the first time with
Chavez and Cohen in the Stardust Motel in Delano and soon thereafter
agreed to sign an agreement with the union.
Cohen complained that rural judges would issue temporary
restraining orders without notice to the union. In 1973, over 3,200
UFW workers were arrested for violating injunctions; most of the
workers were soon freed, when the injunctions were overturned for
being unconstitutional. In 1973, the UFW established "wet line"
outposts along the Arizona-Mexico border to prevent Mexicans from
entering the United States to break UFW strikes.
The New York Times made its first major criticism of the UFW in
Cohen left the UFW in 1979, and said that, in addition to personal
reasons, he thought that the UFW "was a little tired... unions that
don't organize, die." Cohen reviewed the current status of those who
shaped the UFW: Eliseo Medina was a Giumarra worker who is now an
official of the SEIU; Jessica Govea teaches labor relations at
Rutgers and LeRoy Chatfield runs Loaves & Fishes, a homeless
shelter, in Sacramento.
Cesar Chavez was the first Latino to receive, on April 30, 1997, a
granite plaque on the Latino Walk of Fame on the north and south
sides of Whittier Boulevard, between Eastern Avenue and Atlantic
Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Ann McGregor, executive director of
the Martin Luther King Farmworkers' Fund, is writing a book about
In 1993 UFW first vice president Dolores Huerta was the first
Hispanic woman inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and
received the American Civil Liberties Union's Medal of Liberty Award
and the Eugene V. Debbs Outstanding American Award.
In one of the first scholarly treatments of the FBI files on Cesar
Chavez, Richard Steven Street concludes that the surprise of the
1,500-page file is that the FBI "found nothing on Chavez;" no
communist leanings, no marital infidelities, only "a man with a
single-minded devotion to farmworkers." (page 349).
"War Stories: Showdown in the Central Valley," The Recorder, May
16, 1997. Dan Walters, "2 reminders of faded clout," Sacramento Bee,
April 1, 1997. Ferriss, Susan and Ricardo Sandoval. 1997. The Fight
in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York.
Harcourt Brace. A pictorial book to accompany the PBS special April,
13, 1997. Street, Richard Steven. 1996. "The FBI's secret file on
Cesar Chavez," Southern California Quarterly. Vol 78. No 4. 347-384.