I left Yuma AZ one cool, spring morning in 1993 after listening to a local newspaperwoman describe the scene surrounding the Bruce Church v. United Farm Workers trial during which Cesar Chavez died. On my way out I stopped by the town's great historical site, the Yuma Territorial Penitentiary, and did my penance to the history we all live on this harsh and painful border before a mug shot of Ricardo Flores Magon, father of the Mexican Revolution and one-time inmate.
Chavez had died in his sleep after two days of grilling on the stand by plaintiff attorneys, out to make a huge noise to distract attention from the obvious problem, not ignored by Arizona appellate court that reversed the lower court many months after Chavez died: a superior court, even in Yuma AZ, even if Yuma is the headquarters of the plaintiff second largest lettuce company in the world, has no jurisdiction over a boycott in California.
To add salt to the wound of the Yuma trial, my local source told me, the ranch along the nearby Gila River where Chavez had been born and which his father had lost, was owned by the plaintiff, Bruce Church Co.
Standing outside the penitentiary ruins, looking south across a bend in the Colorado River, I remembered the story Arizona Farm Worker Union Director Lupe Sanchez’ had told about the “Yuma Wet Line” in 1974. It is an ugly story, completely at odds with the beatific image of (almost-a-saint) Cesar Chavez. The story of the wet line -- armed union pickets stationed on the border to drive back illegal immigrants looking for work in nearby Yuma, is well told by Frank Bardacke in his monumental, gripping and beautifully written Trampling out the Vintage. That morning I was stunned by a tragedy. After reading Trampling out the Vintage, I have a far, far better idea of what it was I lived in California agriculture then and live now.
Bardacke writes the story of Chavez from the angle of farm work and farm workers. The effect is to give Chavez his full stature, weight and substance, brilliance and flaws, while avoiding hagiography or its opposite. The drama of the periodic waves of farm worker revolt in the 20th century have been rendered into religious icons by still photography, from Dorothea Lange’s Okie mothers to Paul Fusco’s Mexican mothers, all owing perhaps more than we are conscious of to the great muralists of the Mexican Revolution. Bardacke blasts through the frozen image of farm work brilliantly in his second chapter, called “The Work Itself,” a testament to the velocity and skill required to make a living in the vegetable fields of Salinas, written by one who did it long enough to gain lifelong respect for it and has been able here to honor that work as few writers or artists have ever done. Having done perhaps more farm work than the author has, I believe he has chosen the best approach – the real root and the route to the deepest themes in this history – and I believe he has fully realized the design such a radical approach requires.
Bardacke does not alienate farm work for the rest of the types of work necessary to describe in order to tell the tale of Cesar Chavez and the UFW. Even more complete and detailed as his description of the work of a broccoli-harvest crew is his presentation of the work of community and labor organizing. Making clear distinctions between the two tasks is essential to the book's thesis, providing us with concrete reasons to explain why the UFW made so many self-destructive descisions that it finally destroyed its place in the fields -- after a brilliant beginning. That and its connected problem, the flood of undocumented Mexican workers across the border in the years immediately following the termination of the US-Mexico guest-worker program (Bracero Program), were two of the main conflicts Chavez and the UFW faced after the heroic days of the first Delano table-grape strike, the March to Sacramento (La Peregrinacion or “pilgrimage” as Chavez named it) and the very successful international boycott against Delano table grape that made the union and its leader and international household name.
Yet, even in the glory days of 1966 in Delano, if you were there (I was, organizing a voter registration drive), the first thing you became aware of was what Bardacke presents with the deepest understanding: Mexican farm workers had a long, living tradition of union organization going back, just in the US, to previous great juncture of worker history, the Arizona mine strikes led by Anglo Wobblies and Mexican magonistas in the decade before WWI. When those organizations were destroyed by federal troops, some of the workers followed the cotton harvests west through Arizona to the Imperial and Coachella valleys and into the Great Central Valley of California, where 50,000 cotton pickers – mainly Mexican – struck in 1933. But, even lacking the historical information, attending meetings in Kern, Kings and Tulare counties to recruit voter registrars, I listened to enough political rhetoric to understand that their entire political vocabulary was revolutionary and quite unlike the dominant idiom of US unionism of the time, which focused on wage and benefit hikes and anti-communism. In the organization Chavez started, called the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which, after it joined the AFL-CIO became the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) and finally became the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Catholic Church line on anti-communism was followed, as laid down in papal encyclicals on social action in the late 19th century. Yet, in conflict with godly community organizing of the poor barrios which Chavez began doing under the influence of the Catholic Community Service Organization and also a group within the Church called the cursillos was god-less union organization that could, if not watched carefully and purged periodically, turn to communism. Chavez never seemed to understand that the moment he formed a viable farm worker union, he was going to be called a communist and worse by all growers and most Democrats in agricultural California. In fact, as Bardacke indicates, whenever farm workers in California were organized, they practiced slowdowns, short strikes and other techniques that had been designed and practiced by wobblie-magonista anarchists since the beginnings of the peculiar form of southwest agriculture, large-scale agribusiness. The workers were ready to strike and they led Chavez into being a labor leader at the front of the March rather than being the community organizer in the background. He had trained more than a decade to be with teachers as expert as Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross, who taught him, among other techniques, the value of one-on-one and small group conversations. Bardacke emphasizes this point. For people involved in any form of political organization will appreciate how the book deals with this inexhaustible topic.
Perhaps the best single expression at that time of the impulse to revolt that was being felt across Mexican-American communities throughout the Southwest was a play that Luis Valdez wrote at San Jose State, which featured the shrunken head of Pancho Villa buried in a closet but which had come back to life and howling for justice. Luis, whose Teatro Campesino was a delightful mainstay on a flatbed truck at picket lines until he was purged, went on to a successful career in film ("Zoot Suit" and "La Bamba") and his theater now has a permanent residence in San Juan Bautista.
The notion of the word as a form of action permeates Trampling out the Vintage. Listening and speaking preceded all the activities that caused change to the fields, enough change so rapidly that we could believe for a few seasons in the possibility of a firm foundation from which to struggle for labor justice in Southwestern agribusiness. False rumors, spawned by internal power struggles in the UFW, did fatal damage to that possibility.
Since the last 55 years of my life has been associated with California agriculture in one way or another, I have a lifetime storehouse full of experience and rumors about it, its workers, Cesar Chavez and the UFW. I vouch for Bardacke’s presentation of the rise and fall of Chavez and the UFW, based on a lifetime of rumors. My favorite part of how Bardacke tells the story is his constant stitching together of oral accounts of events, the only way of keeping the history rooted in worker experience. Do oral history informants tell the truth? I have heard different versions of almost every major event Bardacke covers, but what he’s heard and distilled from different voices is a very complete, satisfying version of the story.
I’ll put Bardacke’s Trampling Out The Vintage on a very short shelf along with Carey McWilliams’ Factories in the Field, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle, Ernesto Galarza’s Merchants of Labor, Rodolfo Acuna’s Corridors of Migration, William Dubofsky’s We Shall Be All (a history of the IWW), and a widely read book among the protagonists in Trampling Out The Vintage, Saul Alinsky’s biography of John L. Lewis.
To finish the list, I’d add Thucydides, out of respect for the dialectical way Bardacke handles opposing themes: grower v. worker in Western agribusiness; democracy and autocracy in the UFW; citizens and greencards v. undocumented immigrants; conflicting forms of the organization of work between the different agricultural regions – Arizona, Imperial and Coachella valleys, south San Joaquin Valley, north San Joaquin Valley, Salinas and Pajaro valleys, and Napa and Sonoma counties’ wine-grape deal; hand work and mechanization; the clash of Hispanic and Anglo cultures, truth and rumor, Catholic anti-communism v. secular labor organizing, etc. Bardacke has not only a grasp of the issues large and small in this conflict; he has done a superb job of organizing the material into a book to be read and then studied.