In the summer of 1968 Peter Matthiessen met Cesar Chavez for the first time. They were the same forty-one. Matthiessen lived in New York City while Chavez lived in Sal Si Puedes, the San Jose barrio where his career as a union organizer took off. This book is Matthiessen's panoramic yet finely detailed account of the three years he spent traveling and working with Chavez. In it, Matthiessen provides a candid look into the many sides of this enigmatic and charismatic leader who lived by the laws of nonviolence.
More than thirty years later, Sal Si Puedes is less reportage than living history. A whole era comes alive in its the Chicano, Black Power, and antiwar movements; the browning of the labor movement; Chavez's series of hunger strikes; the nationwide boycott of California grapes. When Chavez died in 1993, thousands gathered at his funeral. It was a clear sign of how beloved he was, how important his life had been.
A new postscript by the author brings the reader up to date as to the events that have unfolded since the writing of Sal Si Puedes. Ilan Stavans's insightful foreword considers the significance of Chavez's legacy for our time. As well as serving as an indispensable guide to the 1960s, this book rejuvenates the extraordinary vitality of Chavez's life and spirit, giving his message a renewed and much-needed urgency.
Peter Matthiessen is the author of more than thirty books and the only writer to win the National Book Award for both non-fiction (The Snow Leopard, in two categories, in 1979 and 1980) and fiction (Shadow Country, in 2008). A co-founder of The Paris Review and a world-renowned naturalist, explorer and activist, he died in April 2014.
What an important read. Cesar Chavez is known amongst “latinos” as the brown Martin Luther King Jr., but I didn’t know his story until now. He was a genuinely kind person who should not be forgotten in history. Like MLK Jr. he held fast to his anti-violence principles, even when we could barely contain his people from retaliating with violence, but he did advocate to “fight like hell” in a type of non-violent guerilla warfare that consisted of striking, boycotting, marches and even hunger strikes.
But unlike MLK, he even had the support of the Black Panthers, Brown Berets and other, more militant organizations during the Civil Rights Movement. This was because he was really from the bottom. He grew up and remained mired in poverty his whole life, and was not highly educated in formal institutions as MLK was. Here was truly a man of the people, who didn’t care for any press, but just fought for La Causa…his cause.
And what cause is that? It’s the cause of the PICKERS…the Farm Workers of California. Think of the Okies in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, only in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, they were mostly Mexican American, Filipinos and some African Americans. The pickers live in the lowest social strata of society, in almost abject poverty, working arduous, long hours for little pay.
Chavez views this as a battle for simple human rights. What he was advocating was for fairly simple things…some of them things we may take for granted in our jobs today. Things like a living wage, basic sanitation. Bathrooms in the fields. Washstations. Fresh drinking water. Controls on pesticides. Even things like seniority, paid vacation, sick leave, medical insurance, unemployment insurance, grievance procedures, job security, holidays off, rest periods, and stable work hours with paid overtime. And he felt the only way to achieve this was through an honest union contract with the land owners / growers. What people had to understand is that the “grower” and the farmworkers are not the same…they are oftentimes fundamentally opposed. Chavez went so far as to say “the growers don’t care about the people and they never will. Their improvements, their labor-saving devices, are all for their own benefit, not for ours.” The only way to fight for and gain their basic rights, in his mind, was through a Union contract.
What he ended up doing was leading and eventually winning the greatest agricultural strike in the history of the United States, a battle that lasted 5 grueling years. In so doing, he battled against the biggest players in agribusiness in California (Dow Chemical, United Fruit Company, etc), big supermarket chains (which had large landowners on their board of directors) as well as big landowners all up and down the Central Valley. He was constantly moving between San Jose, Delano, MacFarland, Oakland, even all the way down to East L.A. and every small farming town in between.
It was amazing to me to learn how hard big business and even politicians (mostly Conservative) were pushing back against him, given what he was fighting for. But Peter Matthiessen puts this in perspective by outlining a short history of the American labor movement, and showing how the large growers gained political power and how by 1934, most “agrarian reformers” were labeled as communists. Of course we know that these Red Scare tactics didn’t stop and continued all throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Chavez was constantly labeled or believed to be a communist even though he was not even close. He just wanted a better life for his fellow dirt-poor farmworkers. He even went so far as to say “farm work could be a decent job for my son… with a union”. While Chavez was not a communist, there may have been communist sympathizers or communists working for the union as organizers. Chavez didn’t care…he just wanted to get his goals accomplished of getting the Union Contracts signed with the big growers of California.
What I was inspired the most by, was by how Chavez got this done. And it was by ACTION. He didn’t care about philosophizing. He didn’t need any romanticizing about the “poor fieldworkers”. He didn’t want volunteers to come and attend marches and then simply leave, feeling they had done something for the cause. He only wanted people that were down for La Causa with HARD WORK. Often thankless work, with little to no pay. They were striking one farm at a time. Going from farm to farm setting up picket lines. It was truly amazing what his organization accomplished despite all the tactics by the growers to beat him (huge propaganda campaign, endless litigation, strike breakers, hiring of undocumented workers to subvert his strikes, intimidation and violence against strikers, illegal employer-led unions, etc).
There’s an amazing scene where Chavez describes to Matthiessen how the poor have been historically pitted against one another, namely the Mexican Americans and the Filipinos in California's farms. What happened was that Chavez and Matthiessen were in a gymnasium full of Mexican American farmworkers and organizers who were beginning to feel an “us versus them” attitude towards the Filipinos. The sentiment was growing more hostile by the minute. Chavez then decides to take the podium (he didn’t like speeches) and admonishes them for their attitudes towards the Filipinos. He said that if they don’t want Filipinos in this Union, then he would leave right this instant and start up his own Union with the Filipinos. And he meant it. The tensions gradually lessened.
I can’t help thinking about the plight of the Coffee Pickers of the world. Coffee is so ubiquitous in our society…every street corner, bodega, restaurant, supermarket has numerous brands of coffee. Yet the coffee pickers STILL live in abject poverty today. All the “fair traded” coffee you drink is picked by farmworkers in destitute poverty. My mom grew up as a coffee picker. I’ve picked coffee. Their struggle today is very real. What they need is a modern day Cesar Chavez. What they need is a Union for Coffee Pickers! Yet in countries (like in Central America) where genocide and mass killing of indigenous peasants and farmworkers happened just recently (in the 1980s), this is a long shot. Even today land defenders and journalists are being killed, often by assassins ordered by the oligarchy and land owners (see Berta Caceres in Honduras). I’m not so sure a modern day Cesar Chavez figure in Central America would survive very long.
Even in the late 1960s, when this book was written, in California, Cesar Chavez was constantly receiving death threats and his potential assassination loomed large in the wake of MLK’s, JFK’s and Malcolm X's murders.
If we’re looking at this from a broader perspective…from a perspective of true change, then maybe an actual revolution is required to resolve the plight of these indigenous workers, given they were displaced and their lands stolen due to Capitalism (unequivocally)…but Chavez wasn’t that radical…his revolution was a much more simpler one…part of the growing civil rights movement at the time.
As the book ends, Caesar’s battle continued with other crops…I’ll need to read Miriam Pawel’s book ‘Union of Our Dreams’ to find out how it all ended with Chavez, because this book was composed while he was in the thick of it (late 60s).
Just a quick note on the author, Peter Matthiessen. It has been recently revealed that he worked with the CIA as an informant, and I’m aware of some books that try to discredit him for this. And rightfully so, given the CIA’s absolutely horrible track record. But I dug into this story a bit once I found out about it. It turns out this was only for a two year period in his early 20s, which he’s since regretted. As a young writer fresh out of college, he saw it as a cool thing to work for the CIA as a “Spy”. But if I look at his body of work, what I see is that he’s worked for many years to illuminate the plight of indigenous peoples in the United States (see his books: Indian Country + In The Spirit of Crazy Horse + Sal Si Puedes… this book, about Chavez, an indigenous man who saw himself primarily as a Chicano, a Mexican American.) So overall I still got love for Matthiessen, despite his short-lived CIA informant work. I’ll end this review with a few of his words on Cesar Chavez.
“This new hope for the farm workers has been brought not by the Communist agent that his enemies have conjured up, nor even by a demagogue, but by a small, soft-spoken Mexican-American migrant laborer who could never leave the fields long enough to get past the seventh grade”.
A beautifully written book, it was consistently interesting to me on a number of levels. Perhaps most interesting was the analysis of Chavez's character, the view of him as a unique leader. He was not like Martin Luther King, not like Robert Kennedy (whom he supported in 1968), not a politician, not an intellectual (although he did read books). Rather, he was an organizer and a man seemingly without an ego. The book reveals his humanity, especially in the later chapters where we see problems he has with certain of his children. I hope to read more Matthiessen.
Great labor history, told journalistically visiting Cesar Chavez in the uncertain midst of 1968 grape harvest strikes and boycott, but bringing in immigration history, rebuttals to the violence of growers, and conflicts in a nonviolent struggle. Moments of HST cynical systemic humor too. Chavez presented as nearly saintly, glad every time he mentions Dolores Huerta it is with glowing praise too.
I absolutely loved Sal Si Puedes. I was inspired to read it after hearing an interview with Peter Matthiessen on NPR. He was so impressive – incredibly sharp, warm, and full of life. I was saddened to hear that he passed away soon after the interview aired. Matthiessen has obviously been a prolific writer and Cesar Chavez has always fascinated me, so I decided to start with Sal Si Puedes. I was not disappointed – excellent writer and excellent topic.
The book is notable because although factual and informative, it is also lyrical, languid almost. It’s like reading a long, extremely well-executed profile on a person – the type you would normally see in a newspaper or magazine. Matthiessen never hides his biases, but his writing is extremely well researched. He admires Chavez without deifying him and I liked that you could feel a real person – a real human being – surface through the writing. As a result, I ended up admiring Chavez even more than I did prior to reading the book. Also, I had read a more recent book about 5 years ago about migrant farm workers (I’m blanking on the title!) and this provides a great adjunct. I now have a greater understanding of the historical context of the issues.
Even though the book is ostensibly a profile of a person, it also turns out to be a profile of the times – the sixties (which has been rehashed so many times in popular culture that it can seem stale) comes alive and you feel how volatile life was in America. It’s really interesting to read about historical events from the perspective of someone who is living through them, truly believes in a need for change, and does not know how things will turn out.
Finally, I liked the passages in Sal Si Puedes devoted to the environment. The descriptions were stirring and the analysis of issues was piercing. Matthiessen is obviously passionate and deeply knowledgeable and I would like to read some of his other work that is more directly about environmental issues.
It's a pretty dry and journalistic read, but its also a very important read. Like most people growing up in the U.S., I've always heard about Cesar Chavez, but never actaully studied what he did. Matthiessen followed him for the better part of the strike, and does a good job detailing all the factors of their struggle for fair treatment of workers in the fields. My only real regret is that you don't get as much detail going over the before and after, but that would require the book to be like 600 pages.
It is easy to write a biography of a hero and to see him only at his best. Peter Matthiessen does so much more in Sal Si Puedes. By focusing his history around the time he spent with Cesar Chavez he gives the narrative the immediacy that is so often lacking from biography. By depicting his subject in such nuance, Matthiessen brings Chavez to life in a way that celebrates his humanity.
The life of Cesar Chavez was inspiring, but I got to admit this book goes into a lot of detail. The book starts off good and in the middle I started to get bored. The author should have put less detail and more important facts. After all the book was good to read.