by Anita Quintanilla
In 1971 in Austin I failed seeing Cesar Chavez because of my late arrival to his event, managing only a glimpse of the car rushing him off to the airport. I had a chance to make up for this missed opportunity when I went to his son's wedding reception in 1972 in Delano. As I approached this family man for a dance, the "Chavez Mystique" vanished when I noticed how simple and down-to-earth he was. He shyly turned down my request for a dance - something that I would tease him about years later. While working with Dolores Huerta in the mid-70s in New York City I was able to further observe Cesar's humanness. He spoke at different events, including one occasion with the Kennedys and Shrivers and other influential people in Boston. Cesar's humanity and sincerity seemed to dissipate any arrogance that may have been in the air. In California in January of 1977, while taking a break from organizing farm workers with Arturo Rodriguez, I stopped off in La Paz, the UFW headquarters. While there Cesar approached me and asked if I wanted to be one of his security guards. He felt it was time to have a full-time female guard. At first the head of the security department assigned me to just office work until Cesar got mad at him and insisted that I also go on the road with them.
On one of these trips I remember we stopped to eat in a park in Sacramento and Cesar told us about a time he went to a huge social event of politicians and celebrities in Mexico City. The hosts of the event offered him female companionship. Cesar was shocked and the hosts were embarrassed and apologized. In retelling this incident Cesar's face was very expressive in showing his reaction and theirs. On these road trips I usually rode in the "suicide car" but one time I occupied the station wagon with Cesar and the driver. As we drove through the central valley of California, Cesar would tell us the UFW history of each town. It was such a pleasure and comfort to hear his soothing voice and such an honor to be privy to his recollections and reflections. He sure loved talking! His german shepard dogs, Huelga and Boycott, traveled with us and Cesar expressed concern for their comfort. I loved those two dogs and assured Cesar that I was helping take good care of them. During another trip we all stayed at his cousin's house in Phoenix, Arizona. Early the next morning I had to go into the bedroom to tell Cesar that it was time for him to wake up. I felt bad about having to disturb his sleep, knowing how much he needed rest. I'll never forget his sleepy face lifting up from the pillow and turning towards my voice.
At La Paz, located high in the Tehachapi Mountains, Cesar was able to relax a little with the community and his family. He liked to joke around and playfully tease others. At a small ceremony for union organizers, Cesar tried to pin a UFW button on my jacket, which was already covered with several buttons. He jokingly asked if I had enough buttons. One day while we were all gathered outside the community kitchen Cesar took advantage of this opportunity to indulge his passion for amateur photography. He would say silly things to make us smile for the camera, which was only a few inches from our faces. One early morning Cesar wanted to celebrate the birthday of Dolores' oldest daughter. He managed to convince some of us to get up very early to sing "Las Mananitas" to her after he served us hot Mexican chocolate with Tequila in it! He went around with a quizzical expression on his face, offering us more to drink. This was one of his less serious ways of celebrating his Mexican heritage. At several social occasions we had there at La Paz, Cesar had opportunities to pursue his love of dancing, which he was very good at. He certainly wasn't as shy as he was that time back in 1972 in Delano. One day some of us joined Cesar in the community garden. As his small dark fingers sank into the warm soil he patiently described to us the many different kinds of chilies there were. I was amazed by the wealth of knowledge he had about plants and the environment.
In one conversation we had together I told Cesar about how successful we Chicano students at UT were at eliminating non-UFW lettuce on the campus and how we had staged a sit-in in the Governor's office, asking him to proclaim that day "Cesar Chavez" day. Cesar responded by telling me how students were such a powerful base of support and how their dedication and commitment helped the union accomplish its goals. This man, who I loved like a father, taught us some hard lessons about being responsible for our actions -- that "the buck stops with me." If we messed up he wanted to hear us say, "Yes, I f---ed up." Of course, he also emphasized the importance of learning from our mistakes. Later that year I left La Paz and the UFW to work in human services and to finish college. Possibly the last time I saw Cesar was in 1985 while I was helping at Teatro Campesino's 20-year anniversary celebration in San Francisco. As his hostess, I checked with Cesar to see if he needed anything, and, not liking to be pampered, he quickly and politely responded that he was just fine. I was glad to see him enjoying himself at this gala event. Years later when I first heard that Cesar died I was sad but also not surprised. I just knew that with his intense drive for justice he would never slow down in his fight against California's corrupt agribusiness. Growers had constantly put out negative, damaging propaganda to justify their mistreatment of workers, their anti-union stance, and their hatred (fear) of Cesar. The 40-year war they waged (with the help of the John Birch Society, the FBI, Teamsters, Republicans and police) finally took it toll on this non-violent warrior.
I know Cesar would prefer I write about La Causa rather than about him, but I believe it is very important for people to know the real Cesar. He was an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. He was not charismatic or a great orator, but people listened to him because he spoke simple truths. Chicanos and liberals built Cesar up to be a larger-then-life leader, a man of, for, and by the people. He was the answer to their and society's problems and everyone demanded more of him and expected more of him. He was considered a saint, a national labor leader, a Chicano icon, an American Gandhi, a Mexican Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. But he was only a plain-spoken, unassuming leader who had a great deal of common sense and a practical approach to dealing with issues.
Cesar felt that the UFW was more than just a union, that it was a movement that would not only change working conditions but also change the conditions of human life. La Causa was fighting for justice as a social principle. And if it succeeded in raising social consciousness enough then hopefully feelings of anger towards injustices would become the norm. And then we would truly become a "culture of social justice." Inhumane working conditions persist today, including child labor, sexual harassment, and the use of deadly pesticides. And, since racism is more insidious than ever before thanks to the right-wing, we must continue the struggle. In working on civil rights, environmental, and other issues, we can continue affirming Cesar's goal of human justice and equality for all. Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently expressed this idea when he wrote to Cesar in 1966, "Our separate struggles are really one -- a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity...We are together in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized."