Charismatic, controversial, courageous and complicated. Those are just a few words that could sum up the life of the late civil rights leader and farm labor activist Cesar Chavez. Now over 20 years after his death, a new biography seeks to provide fresh insight into a man who is an inspiration for millions. The book is called “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” by Miriam Pawel, who joined us on Valley Edition to talk about Chavez the man and Chavez the myth.
On how this new biography came about:
"There's an incredible voluminous record that he left behind, both in term of documents and hundreds of audio tapes that he made precisely in order to preserve the history. And I felt that was a history that should be told, and he was a fascinating person. I wrote the book for people who have never heard of him, of which there are sadly a lot of people in the country today, but also for people who think they know who he was."
On Chavez the man versus Chavez the myth:
"The story has been told in very hagiographic terms. He's been reduced almost to a very two-dimensional person and sort of sanctified in ways that I think don't do him any service because his complexity is part of what makes him really interesting... He was a very complicated guy. He was brilliant and he was nurturing, and he was ruthless at the same time and he was pragmatic and he was dreamy. He embodied an awful lot of contradictions and that's the full picture that I'm trying to convey."
On having access to dozens of tape recordings made by Chavez:
"The tape recordings are really extraordinary. Form about 1969 through 1980 he just made hundreds of tape recordings, he taped all of the executive board meetings of the union from about 1973 through 1980. So you can be this fly on the wall and hear these extraordinary debates over philosophy, over personnel. You hear him being sort of visionary and dreamy and imagining what 40 Acres is going to be like, and talking about building a walled-in oasis, and building a farmworkers' cathedral. You hear him cursing and having screaming matches with people, and then having these sort of very serious, agonizing debates about what the future of the union is. So it was very time consuming, but absolutely remarkable."
On whether Chavez was simply a product of his era, or was he the right person at the right time
"I think that the times that moved in were very key, and that he was the right person to do it. His absolute determination to do this, you know we haven't seen anyone do this since."
On his greatest strengths and accomplishments:
"His greatest accomplishment was giving people who thought themselves to be completely powerless and were exploited and disenfranchised, giving them a sense of their own power and their ability to affect change. And he did that for farmworkers, and he also, by extension did that by example for whole categories of poor people. And in doing that, he also taught an entire generation of activists how to organize. You know, Si Se Puede. And he really imbued people with that spirit that it could be done and that change could happen. And he showed by example that it could. So these abilities to do that, his strategic brilliance in figuring out tactics, in figuring out how to make the boycott work, which is not that simple - all of that was taken to bring farmworkers into the national consciousness in a way that they had never been."
On his greatest weaknesses and failures:
"There are a lot of charismatic leaders who are able to build something and then struggle to run it. And he's certainly not the first one to be in that position. And that was his difficulty. He could not relinquish control to delegate to the extent that he needed to do to let the UFW be a functioning labor union. And ultimately he left a tremendous legacy in many places in terms of the people that he trained and learned through him and as a role model and as a hero and a heroic figure for generations to come in cities and across the country. But he did not leave a legacy for farmworkers in the fields in the end, because the union failed."
On the impact the UFW and Chavez had on those involved with the movement:
"I've never met anyone who worked for the UFW for even a short amount of time who doesn't say that it was the most important thing in their lives and it changed the course of what they did for the rest of their life. And I'm sort of fascinated by the force and the power of a movement. I have not seen or experienced a social movement that had that kind of impact on people."