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A Biography

by Miriam Pawel

Pub Date: April 1st, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-60819-710-1
Publisher: Bloomsbury

An exhaustive study of the life and work of iconic labor leader Cesar Chavez (1927–1993).

In a follow-up to her previous book about the United Farm Workers (The Union of their Dreams, 2009), former Newsday and Los Angeles Times editor Pawel examines Chavez's transformation from a dedicated advocate for the rights of the poor and exploited to a corrupt leader charged with misappropriating funds and dictatorial rule over the union he founded. The author shows that Chavez was a man of his times. Despite his tarred reputation as a union leader, his legend still inspires young Hispanic workers with his slogan, “Si se puede”—yes, it can be done. The child of itinerant farm laborers who was forced to drop out of school to work in the fields, Chavez found few opportunities after his return home after service in the military. Eventually, he found work in the lumberyards. In Delano, Calif., his hometown, Mexican-Americans were at the bottom of the social pyramid. Chavez joined the Community Service Organization in Los Angeles and quickly became a leading member. The CSO led a voter registration drive, ran English classes and set up a credit union. Organized by a priest and a local community worker, it was a chapter of the national network of community organizations launched by Saul Alinsky. When their voter registration campaign stalled, Chavez, with Alinsky’s backing, founded the UFW and began a campaign to organize grape pickers after the grape growers moved to import undocumented Mexican workers and force down wages. Chavez recruited outside support from the broader liberal community and students and launched nationwide boycotts. As a result, writes Pawel, “Mexican Americans once shut out of power…[have] become the establishment in venues that had once been bastions of Anglo power.”

A warts-and-all biography of an important figure.