January 20th, 2010

Books!

Not quite a tragedy ...

As readers of my main blog are certainly aware, I've been penning one of the Chicago Tribune's "Chicago Now" blogs, The Job Stalker (detailing the course of my own job search) for the past several months. Out of contacts made through that, I was recently invited to be a participant in the "Signature Club", a feature of the Trib's Book Section's Printers Row blog that brings in "reader reviews" from the public. This was how I came to be reading Miriam Pawel's The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement (which had been, oddly enough, also a feature of the LibraryThing.com "Early Reviewer" program).

I must admit, The Union of Their Dreams was not something that I would have been likely to have picked up in "free range" book shopping, but I'd suggested that I'd probably do a better job reviewing a non-fiction book, and this was what the Trib sent. I was relieved to find that this book was largely a historical approach to the United Farm Workers rather than a doctrinal screed.

As I worked my way through the book, I developed quite an admiration for the research that author Miriam Pawel had done to produce this document. As opposed to being an external view of the United Farm Workers, with information collected from news stories, etc., or a "personal" view, this was an internal look at the "la causa" through the stories of various participants. Notably absent from this list is Cesar Chavez, while being the pivotal figure for the ultimate story arc, this is a look at the lives and involvement of numerous key players, from Mexican lettuce cutters and irrigators who moved from the fields to be top union figures to "idealistic" White kids looking for some "meaningful experience", like one who is described as:

Ellen was looking for a meaningful experience before heading to graduate school in social work. She knew nothing about the lettuce boycott and wasn't too sure of the difference between Cesar Chavez and Che Guevara. But the internship sounded in line with her career goals, and she was eager to see California.
The book is broken into six "themed" blocks of time which present different phases of activity, from the initial grape strike in 1965 to Chavez's death in 1989, each further divided into chapters on specific events and issues. What makes the book stand out is that, within these chapters, the narrative follows various players' activities in those contexts. That the author was able to dig up enough source information to make these individual sections read plausibly as part of a historical overview is quite impressive, and that at no point does the tone waver from the over-all flow of the book is quite a testament to Ms. Pawel's writing skill.

While clearly being the story of Cesar Chavez's movement, the book is a story about a dozen or so individuals. There is Chris Hartmire, a young "activist" minister; Elisio Medina, a grape harvester who joined the union as a teen; Jerry Cohen, a navy brat turned counter-culture lawyer; Sabino Lopez, a second-generation irrigator in the lettuce fields; Ellen Eggers, the social work student in the above quote; Sandy Nathan, a draft-dodging anti-war protester turned lawyer; Gretchen Laue, a kid who was looking for temp work and ended up with the boycott office in Boston; and Mario Bustamante, a top-ranked lettuce-cutter from Mexico City (as well as several other "recurring characters" who did not get their own sections). The story moves from vignette to vignette of these people's experiences, and in the process weaves the general tale of the union.

It is not a pretty story, nor, ultimately, particularly flattering of Mr. Chavez. All of the key players end up "purged" eventually. Chavez, while claiming "loyalty" as a prime virtue, showed little of it himself, as long-time close friends are shed in alternating cynical and paranoid organizational shake-outs. Chavez envisioned himself as some sort of near-messianic figure, reading about Gandhi, but associating with the likes of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and Synanon cult leader Chuck Dederich (aspects of which Chavez attempted to install as a "new religion" within his "movement"). The core "tragic" element in the book is that gulf between what was, initially, an extremely effective "roots" labor movement which truly revolutionized the state of the farm worker and what Chavez envisioned as his grander "poor people's movement". Somehow the latter always managed to trump the former, and any disagreement with Chavez was framed as "treason", so time after time, contracts were left unfinished, programs not actualized, even checks uncashed due to random re-allocations of staffing resources.

If you have an interest in labor, agricultural, or political issues, this book should appeal to you. It also provides an interesting window on a certain area of counter-cultural activities from the sixties, seventies, and into the eighties. As The Union of Their Dreams is new, your local brick-and-mortar book vendor should have it, although Amazon has it at 34% off and there are already copies at deeper discounts in the new/used market. Again, this is not something that I would have been likely to read "on my own", but it certainly rewarded my attention with a fascinating tale of a notable time in our history.


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