What I Learned from Cesar Chavez

By Marc Grossman

To commemorate the March 31 birthday of Cesar Chavez, we offer some perspectives on the man from his longtime spokesman, speechwriter and personal aide, Marc Grossman, who knew the civil rights and farm labor icon for the last 24 years of his life and still serves as communications director for the Cesar Chavez Foundation. Grossman wrote the foreword to UC Press’s new reissue of Peter Matthiessen’s 1969 book, Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can).

Marc Grossman and Cesar Chavez
Marc Grossman (left), with Cesar Chavez in 1975

It was an honor when UC Press asked me to write a new foreword for the re-issued Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution, Peter Matthiessen’s moving 1960s portrait that helped inspire director Diego Luna’s just-released movie Cesar Chavez.

As part of a whirlwind cross-country tour of special screenings of the film, I met and briefly spoke with President Obama at the White House and left a copy of Matthiessen’s book. The President said he looked forward to reading it.

People often ask for insights about Cesar. Here are just a few.

Sometimes he’d give up assistants or secretaries. If he spotted talented young people, especially if they were farm workers, he’d convince them that they could be accountants, administrators or attorneys. He wanted office results but saw the greater good of helping people fulfill their dreams—dreams some didn’t even know they had at the time. He gave hundreds opportunities that no one would have offered him when he was a young migrant worker with an eighth-grade education. Thousands more credit the experience and training of working with Cesar and the United Farm Workers for lives of social activism and professional success. Wasn’t that what he wanted for farm workers too: the chance to negotiate with their employers as equals across the bargaining table—so they wouldn’t have to just take orders all their lives?

Cesar said that his job as an organizer was helping ordinary people do extraordinary things. He made everyone believe their jobs were important, from attorneys to cooks. He got people to believe in themselves—those whom almost no one considered very important, giving them faith that they could challenge and overcome one of California’s richest industries. Maybe that’s why Cesar—who like everyone in the movement lived in self-imposed poverty—succeeded where others with much better educations and a lot more money tried and failed for a hundred years before him.

He could be incredibly generous in helping people grow and investing them with the authority to do their work. Jerry Cohen, the UFW’s longtime general counsel, is still mystified by critics who claim that Cesar wouldn’t delegate authority. “Cesar gave me too much authority,” he said. “Once he had a sense of confidence in a person, Cesar had no problem delegating authority.” That was my experience too.

His novel approach to organizing, especially his insistence on nonviolence, sparked internal union dissent. Some left during his 25-day fast for nonviolence in 1968, but most people’s hearts and minds changed.

An equally divisive internal political battle in the late 1970s was over the UFW’s future direction. There were legitimate differences of opinions. Some wanted a traditional business union, focusing on wages, hours, and benefits for members. Cesar’s vision was more transformational. Of course he knew that the union had to produce economic progress. But he also saw the UFW as leading a universal movement to take on problems confronting farm workers and a larger, developing community of Latino working families and other poor people. As in the fight over nonviolence in the ’60s, Cesar’s vision prevailed then too, although critics still condemn him for it. Most Americans today would probably take Cesar’s side. If the UFW had been a conventional business union, would seventeen million Americans have boycotted grapes in 1975?

The lessons Cesar taught me, countless farm workers and millions of others he inspired who never worked on a farm are as relevant today as when Peter Matthiessen’s book was first published in 1969.