A provocative new book about the United Farm Workers separates romantic myths from harsh realities.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Everyone loves heroes, and the story of Cesar Chavez, and his successful efforts to take on growers and build the United Farm Workers Union, has become part of our national history.
Chavez’s cause was taken on by everyone from Bobby Kennedy to the then-youthful Jerry Brown. So it follows that veteran Los Angeles Times reporter and editor Miriam Pawel made few friends when she decided to take a look at the story behind the story – first, in a controversial series of articles for the newspaper and now, in her new book: The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement.
As Pawel writes: “The history of the United Farm Workers Union begins and ends with Cesar Chavez, who had the audacity to single-handedly challenge California’s most powerful industry, and the will to keep fighting for three decades.”
But the ensuing power struggles and fights over the direction of the union left Chavez isolated, his legacy tarnished. “By the time he died in 1993,” Pawel notes, “he stood alone again.”
The book tells the stories of several key figures in the rise and fall of the UFW, including Carmel Valley’s Jerry Cohen, the union’s chief lawyer for years until leaving in 1981 after a bitter dispute with Chavez (see story, pg. 24); Sabino Lopez, a Salinas lettuce worker who signed up for the UFW after hearing a stirring speech by the then-young Chavez; and Chris Hartmire, an idealistic young minister who helped build the union, then was cast out as a traitor; and many others who were present at the creation of an institution that changed the face of America, but subsequently disappointed many of its followers.
Pawel, Cohen, Hartmire and Lopez will be speaking together at a rare panel reuniting key figures from the movement this Friday at the National Steinbeck Center. Given the UFW’s anger at Pawel’s work – officials declined comment for this piece but have previously issued lengthy rebuttals – the book has a perhaps surprising dedication: “For those who believe they can change the world. ¡Que vivan!”