`Get out if you can’ By David Fishlow Peter Mathiessen, Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1970, 372 pp., S6.95. Austin to win for farm workers the right to organize in their own behalf that is enjoyed by all other large labor groups in the United States; if it survives, his United Farm Workers Organizing Committee [UFWOCI will be the first effective farm workers union in American history.” “Before this century is done, there will be an evolution in our values and the values of human society, not because man has become more civilized, but because, on a blighted earth, he will have no choice. Such hope as there is of orderly change depends on men like Cesar Chavez…” is the third, and the best, book yet written about the Delano-based strike of California’s vineyard workers. Its author, Peter Mathiessen, is described by his publishers as a novelist and naturalist; as one whose prime concerns are human beings and the earth they inhabit, it is natural that he would become an admirer and friend of Cesar Chavez, the 41-year 7old leader of the farm workers’ movement. For Chavez, the issue is one of freedom. Farm workers now have less to say about the world they inhabit than almost any other group in America. If they can succeed, and if their movement survives, Mathiessen explains, they will have succeeded where many have failed in the past. The California strike began on September 8, 1965, when the AFL-CIO’s The author worked for the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee as editor of El Malcriado in Delano, Calif He also founded and edited Ya Mero in the Rio Grande Valley. MEETINGS THE THURSDAY CLUB of Dallas meets each Downtown YMCA, 605 No. Ervay St., Dallas. Good discussion. You’re welcome. Informal, no dues. CENTRAL TEXAS ACLU luncheon meeting. Spanish Village. 2nd Friday every month. From noon. All welcome. A Review largely Filipino Agricultural Workers of the fields to demand union recognition and higher wages. A week or so later, the Mexican and chicano members of the independent National Farm Workers been organizing for years, joined the strike. Nearly five years later, the strike continues. Although the major wine grape growers \(Gallo, Christian Brothers, S ch enley, Franzia, Paul Masson, several thousand workers, have signed collective bargaining agreements with UFWOC; the state’s powerful table grape growers, much more paranoid about dealing with unions, and much less vulnerable to consumer boycotts, refuse to negotiate and refuse to hold elections. The advantages are all on the side of the growers. As Mathiessen points out, there is a practically limitless supply of desperately poor and therefore despairingly docile labor on the Mexican side of the border. Defense Department purchases of scab-picked grapes continue to multiply in an administration attempt to bust the boycott. Violence and intimidation against strikers are still commonplace. And the workers -L who have been through it all before wait patiently, hopefully. The hungriest scab in order to eat. Despite the pressures of a protracted strike and boycott which keeps Chavez’s best organizers the strikers themselves in large cities all over this country and Canada, the Union manages to hang on and to operate a clinic, a credit union, numerous service centers, the first employer-financed health care program in farm labor history, a newspaper, and more. With all of that, Chavez and UFWOC are in the forefront of the fight to limit the use of dangerous pesticides in the United States. It’s all done by a polyglot collection of farm workers and volunteers with fierce loyalties to the Union and to Chavez. “One person in the Union with reservations about Chavez remarked to me of his own accord,” Mathiessen says, “that in the creation of the United Farm Workers, Chavez had done something that ‘no one else has ever done. What can I say? I disagree with him on a lot of things, but I work for him for nothing.’ Mathiessen’s portraits of those around Chavez are terse and accurate: Dolores Huerta, vice presideht and Usually chief negotiator: “On large issues [she] is perhaps Chavez’s most loyal ally, but on the small ones she tends to be combative.” General Counsel Jerome Cohen, who has emerged over the last three years as the shrewd and hard-hitting head of the legal department: “… looks ordinarily like an all-American boy trying to pull himself together after a rude awakening in the wrong house.” A youthful and anonymous scab who started to leave the fields, hesitated, and returned to work despite a raucous picket line: “The whole world was awaiting me. and I became afraid.” Towering over all is the figure of Chavez. “It is useless to speculate whether Chavez is a great mystic or a tough labor leader single-minded to the point of ruthlessness; he is both.” Mathiessen is sometimes melodramatic and occasionally .inaccurate on details. For example, the Spanish phrase he chose for a title is the name of a San Jose, Calif., barrio where Chavez lived as a young man. According to an explanation attributed to him in the book, it got the.name “because it was every man for himself, and not too many could get out of it, except to prison,” but Sal Si Puedes is a common place name throughout Latin America, and it generally refers to muddy streets or impassable roads, rather than to sociological conditions. Sometimes he is condescending; at one point Mathiessen writes, apparently with surprise, that despite his cheap work clothes, Chavez was “clean and neatly pressed.” On another page, we are gratuitously told that “Chavez is one of the few public figures.that I would go ten steps out of my way to meet.” Still, readers will be glad Mathiessen went ten steps out of his way. He has portrayed Cesar Chavez, described his movement, and speculated on the important questions: How does Chavez manage to draw support from everybody from the far left to the moderate right? Where does the man who works the land fit into a pesticide-saturated and rapidly changing rural ecology? Can migrant, penniless, Spanish-speaking workers be organized in the 1970’s using many techniques which failed in the 1930’s? These are the major questions. For radicals and liberals who have supported the grape boycott since its inception, who try to tell their children in some kind of rational terms why “we do not eat grapes in our house,” and who have wondered “who Cesar Chavez really is, and what the hell is happening in Delano, Calif.,” Sal Si Puedes is a must. May 29, 1970 19
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