In her second book on the farm workers movement, author and journalist Miriam Pawel this time focuses squarely on César Chávez, in a critical and detailed biography of the labor leader.
We tend to romanticize social justice activists, but you deliver a critical examination of César Chávez as a complex character with several flaws. What are some of the traits that made him a great leader and some of his failures?
That was definitely my intention. Like many charismatic leaders who build something, he wasn’t necessarily the most adept person at running it. That’s a common thread through history. A lot of his passion, commitment and persistence had other sides to it, too. He could be both nurturing and ruthless. And he was so single-minded in his intensity and demanded … that others have the same degree of intensity. So there were a lot of casualties and collateral damage … ultimately he failed to build a sustained labor union for farm workers and perhaps that wasn’t his principal goal, but it was for some of the people around him. I think his strength was his vision, and sometimes that was his weakness as well.
With the state labor and immigrant rights is in right now and the growing power of big ag, what can we learn from Chávez’s activism today?
The movement was a vehicle for empowering people who had felt themselves so disenfranchised and so powerless; it’s a model certainly still relevant today. A lot of what he did was basic community organizing. He showed the most powerless poor people who, in some ways, only have their own lives to give to the struggle, can surmount tremendous odds … if they band together through the formation of strategic alliances.… His legacy also trained an entire generation of activists … who learned from him and got to experience what a movement was for the first time … and they’ve gone on to work in labor, environment, education, law and immigrant rights movements, and passed on a lot of those lessons down to people, too.… We see that especially in the immigrants rights movement, a lot [of] activists have come out of the farm workers’ movement.
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San Antonio Book Festival
Miriam Pawel, moderated by Gregg Barrios
11am, Sat, April 5
Central Library Auditorium