Heroes are funny things. We choose to put someone on a pedestal for any number of reasons, from the way they look to the way they sing to the causes they champion. But beneath the façade of every hero beats the heart of a human being, with all the quirks and foibles that make up all of our complex personalities.
César Chávez was a hero to many people in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the driving force behind making the plight of migrant farmworkers visible to the rest of America through boycotts of grapes and lettuce. With the founding of the United Farm Workers union, he and his dedicated staff fought for what most of us recognize as basic human rights: a safe workplace, a fair wage, decent housing, education for our children. Under his leadership, the UFW boycotts captured the attention of the nation and won major concessions from field owners to improve the lives of the workers. His accomplishments have been enshrined in American life: schools, parks, libraries and streets have been named after him, and the state of California officially celebrates his birthday as César Chávez Day.
As Miriam Pawel illustrates in The Union of Their Dreams: Power, hope, and struggle in Cesar Chavez’s farm worker movement, Chávez’s considerable accomplishments were not without setbacks. Over the years, his initial dedication to the cause of farm workers shifted to a determination to preserve his control over the organization he created. After farm workers at many farms and ranches in California won the right to hold union elections and chose the UFW to represent them, the union found it difficult to actually deliver on the promises it had made. Chávez could be capricious, transferring staff members out of communities in which they were working hard to win the trust of and organize workers. As the union grew, Chávez became preoccupied with fighting off what he perceived to be challenges to his authority from board members, resulting in midnight purges of staffers who had lived in poverty and dedicated their lives for years to the farm workers’ cause.
Pawel creates her complicated portrait of Chávez indirectly, by telling the stories of several of the UFW’s most dedicated workers in alternating vignettes. The style allows us to get to know each of the workers well, but muddies the reader’s sense of a coherent timeline of events, and sometimes leads to incidents being told twice and out of order.[The Union of Their Dreams] is not a hatchet job in any sense; Pawel does not try to demonize Chávez nor lay the UFW’s failures solely at his feet. The most grievous flaw of the book, however, is the lack of representation from UFW officials who remained loyal to Chávez throughout the 1970s turmoil. But Pawel, a journalist by trade, has a very accessible writing style, and her informality creates an intimacy that makes the reader feel part of the story.
This book is a worthy read not only for for those interested in progressive politics, but also readers looking for insight into how organization are formed, grow, and are stifled by their success. It’s a familiar story for anyone who has volunteered or worked for a nonprofit organization, but it seems especially poignant in this case, because the stakes were so high for so many people, and even more significant victories were so close. I came away from this book deeply impressed by the incredible accomplishments of a group of idealistic, committed men and women, and saddened by thoughts of the opportunities lost to power struggles, disorganization and petty quarrels.