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At a time when the Mexican-US border is rife with contention, one needs some inspiration for unity and dialogue. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers Movement by Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval provides that inspiration. The book chronicles how Chavez, over almost a half-century of activism, used nonviolent tactics to promote unity among and justice for California's, and eventually the nation's, oppressed farm workers. Through his crusade, Chavez secured unionization for the US's farm workers and began the movement for Chicano rights. Although the book has its shortcomings, it offers a wonderful and inspiring picture of the farm worker's movement in the United States and Cesar Chavez's leading role.
Cesar Chavez's origins and experiences illuminate his later call to lead a nationwide movement. He was born Cesar Estrada Chavez on March 21, 1927 on his family's farm in Yuma, Arizona. There he lived an idyllic life learning the teachings of Catholicism until 1938 when the Great Depression forced the Chavez family to sell their land and move to California. There, Chavez experienced first-hand the brutal work, meager wages, and destitute conditions suffered by nonunionized migrant farm workers as well as the intense discrimination suffered by Chicanos. Chavez married Helen Fabela in 1948 and eventually settled in the impoverished barrio Sal Si Puedes ("Leave if you can.") in San Jose. In Sal Si Puedes, Chavez met two men who would become his greatest role models. Father Donald McDonnell taught Chavez the doctrines of Catholic Social Teaching, especially the labor-related encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII. Fred Ross recruited Chavez to work advocating for Chicano rights with the Community Service Organization. In 1962, however, Chavez left CSO to devote himself to a lifelong dream inspired by his time as a farm laborer: unionizing migrant farm workers.
In 1962, shortly after leaving CSO, Chavez and his family moved to Delano, California, where built the National Farm Worker's Association from the ground up. In 1965, after three years of slowly collecting membership, the association voted to join members of the Agricultural Worker's Organizing Committee in a strike of California vineyards. Soon Chavez, most famously under the banner of the United Farm Workers Union (a merger of the NFWA and AWOC), became the leader of la causa, a nationwide movement for farm worker's rights. He, along with activists like Dolores Huerta, organized migrant farm workers in initiatives like the famous nationwide California table grape boycott of the late 1960's, the lettuce strikes of the 1970's, and the anti-pesticide grape boycott of the 1980's. Throughout his organizing, Chavez, still a devout Catholic strengthened by his family's and Father McDonnell's teachings, remained staunchly nonviolent, fasting whenever violence crept into picket lines. A proponent of creative nonviolent action, Chavez, well-trained by Fred Ross, organized ingenious tactics like praying where picketing was forbidden, holding mass perigrinaciones (pilgrimages) and even mailing squashed grapes to prominent politicians. Chavez also devoted time to political activism, securing the creation of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board in 1976. Further, inspired by the discrimination he faced as a child, he promoted Chicano culture (while always promoting unity among different farm worker nationalities) establishing newspapers like the Malcriado and theater initiatives like Teatro Campesino. Chavez was remembered fondly upon his death in 1993 as the focal point of the Chicano farm worker's movement.
Fight in the Fields, the companion volume to a television series of the same name, paints a wonderfully creative picture of Chavez's life and legacy. The narrative thoroughly details Chavez's life, from birth to untimely death. The book features hundreds of photographs from Chavez's life that provide a useful visual reference for readers and illuminate the suffering and challenges faced during la causa. The volume also features several insets that consist of actual documents and articles authored by people active in la causa, whether on Chavez's or the opposing side. They provide a firsthand look into the visceral feelings and opinions of those involved in the farm worker's movement and are interesting reads for history buffs, like myself, who are fascinated by contextual documents.
Fight in the Fields further succeeds by emphasizing the people in Chavez's life. Often, accounts of larger-than-life figures like Chavez focus on the figure him or herself and his or her magnanimous deeds. Little attention is paid to his or her influences or influence on others. Fight in the Fields features quotes from interviews with dozens of figures close to Chavez. The interviews of those who influenced Chavez really get to the heart of what drove him to action. In addition, the book profiles over a dozen organizers Chavez took under his wing. He loved to find young, poorly educated (though possessed of infinite creativity and potential) farm workers and presenting them with seemingly impossible challenges (as Ross had done for him). I thoroughly enjoyed the book's emphasis on these young organizers because it demonstrates that, with a little training and hard work, all can advocate for nonviolent change.
Despite its excellent qualities, Fight in the Fields has shortcomings. The narrative is often repetitive and almost always confusing. However, the book's content more than makes up for its poorly written narrative. Furthermore, the book leaves the reader on a negative note. The last quarter of the volume is entirely devoted to the difficulties the UFW experienced in the years before Chavez's death. Almost all of the young organizers Chavez honed left the union which itself faced many defeats in the late 1980's and early 1990's. The book emphasizes these defeats with a negative and dispiriting tone. I would rather have read more about the UFW's triumphs during this time or read the setbacks presented in a more positive tone.
Fight in the Fields left me with two conflicting emotions: inspiration and discouragement. The story of Chavez's ability to single-handedly build a union among transitory, oppressed workers who had no sense of their rights was inspiring. Chavez's story provided me with an example of success amongst impossible odds to look to when I encounter trouble with my initiatives on my college campus. My job is exponentially easier than Chavez's and his creativity and passion (along with the specific logistics of his organizing detailed in the book) motivated me. Furthermore, with the rift between white Americans and Chicanos and Mexican immigrants dug larger every day by contentious issues such as bilingual education and illegal immigration, learning about a movement that united Americans from all backgrounds to work on behalf of minority rights offered me a sense of hope. All should remember Cesar and his commitment to unity rather than division, friendship rather than hate, and dialogue rather than stony anger. However, the near-dissolution of the UFW before Chavez's death left me discouraged. The mass movement a charismatic leader devoted his life to creating easily began fragmented. How on earth can something I build in my spare time survive? The book has certainly led me to want to learn more about la causa and what went wrong at the end.
Fight in the Fields is, all and all, a good read for the aspiring activist. It provides creative inspiration in the story of Cesar Chavez, the man who turned his life's dream into la causa. If you are already interested in Chavez or, like I did, know nothing about him, this book paints a great picture of his life. However, beware the discouragement presented at the end.