Book examines labor leader Chavez's faults

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comOctober 23, 2012 

An Arizona State University professor's new book about César Chávez critiques the legend of the late labor leader, claiming he made poor leadership decisions and misdirected the farmworker movement he spearheaded.

Author Matthew Garcia discussed that issue and others at UC Merced while talking about his book, "From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of César Chávez and the Farm Worker Movement."

Garcia, who discovered unheard audio tapes of Chávez speaking, said the book is controversial because it's the first in-depth study of the United Farm Workers grape boycott and how that strategy delivered the first grape contracts to farmworkers in 1970, he said.

"In telling that story, I reveal that the farmworkers movement was not primarily a Mexican-American or Chicano movement, but rather a multicultural one, so that's a bit shocking for people," Garcia said.

Secondly, Garcia claims that when the farmworker movement succeeded, it was often because Chávez took advice from people who convinced him the boycott was the proper strategy -- even though Chávez personally thought otherwise.

Garcia claims Chávez was swayed by a council of advisers, many of whom were young and white. He maintains Chávez made many mistakes, and led the farmworkers movement "into the ground."

Those mistakes prevented the union from achieving its goals. "When the UFW and the farmworkers movement failed as it did quite dramatically in the mid 1970s, it was primarily because of Chávez's leadership," Garcia said.

Workers face the same challenges

Today, some of the challenges farmworkers face are the same as those they encountered in the days of the farmworkers movement, Garcia said. For example, they continue to receive low wages, some far beyond the minimum wage, and others live in poor conditions, among other issues. "We are back to square one," he said.

There are organizations doing advocacy work, but more is needed, he said. "We need more focus on union than advocacy," Garcia said.

Nikolas Arredondo, a UC Merced junior majoring in history, was among those in the audience. He said he found the talk to be interesting, especially because his father had worked in the fields.

"It definitely changed my idea of how great of a person (Chávez) is," Arredondo said, who's from the San Diego area.

Arredondo described growing up learning only positives about Chávez, but said it's always the little things in history, like a leader's mistakes, that people don't hear about.

Laura Gomez, a UC Merced junior from the Los Angeles area, was drawn to the event. She said too often the flaws of those who are considered heroes aren't known. "It's a good way to learn more than what's given to you," she said. "What's fed to us."

Garcia is the director of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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