Penthouse Retrospective

by Richard Ballad Originally Published: July, 1975

Cesar Chavez | 46-ish Years Ago This Month

We have a central lnformation bank, where we get word of where jobs are, and from which we can dispatch workers. We might take a busload of people from Delano into Los Angeles and get jobs for them there for two or three days through a friendly union. Or we may know a grower a hundred miles away who, even though he is not under contract with us, is not being struck. So we send workers to him.

And then, too, we have people who are so proud that they are really willing to starve, if they have to, to win this fight. They’re amazing people. Very simple people but tough in a very loving kind of way. Very poor — but a lot of honor.

Have you been jailed or physically beaten?

Chavez: Not lately. I’m too visible now. But in the beginning, in the first strike and even before that, yes, I was beaten. But since we’ve become better known, with better press coverage, they stay away from me.

What about the other members of your family?

Chavez: Oh well, Dolores, my sister-in-law, she holds the record. She has been in jail more than anybody. Many times. My brother, Richard, has also been jailed time. after time. Most of the time they make up phony trespass charges. Criminal trespass they call it. A county road is maybe sixty-five feet wide, including the unpaved shoulders and there is a line where the road property ends and private property begins. Sometimes you may accidentally put a foot on the private property. That’s criminal trespass.

In addition to all the picket-line violence haven’t there been times when the police would burst in to arrest people in their homes in the middle of the night?

Chavez: Yes, they’ve done that. When we were breaking the injunctions against striking, we told the judge and the sheriff that we were going to break the injunction. And if they arrested us, we would have the captains get the people to climb into the vans in an orderly way and go to jail quietly. Well, they didn’t want to do that, in front of all the cameras, you know. So they would spot the leaders and then go to their homes at two or three in the morning, literally burst in the doors, drag them out of their beds, and throw them in jail. It was just plain harassment. They had warrants. They could have arrested them in a civiIized way. They just enjoyed using terror tactics, that’s all.

In August 1973, one of your workers, a Yemenite named Nagi Daiffulah, was involved in an altercation with deputy sheriffs. He was killed. What ever happened to the deputies involved?

Chavez: Nothing. The explanation was that he did not die from the blows of the police, but that he struck his head on the pavement when he was knocked to the ground.

Are any of your workers ever chosen for jury duty?

Chavez: Never. Once my sister-in-law, Dolores, was charged with trespass and a Chicano woman was on the jury. She held out against conviction. That was the first and last time any of our people were selected for jury duty.

What about the plot to kill you in 1971?

Chavez: Well, my knowledge is very general. But then our attorney, Jerry Cohen, explained it to me like this. The people from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fire-arms [a division of the Department of the Treasury] tipped us that they had a picture of a hit man who had been given $45,000 if he would kill me. This guy was an expert in explosives and incendiary devices as well as guns.

A few weeks after the alert, he was picked up and convicted of murdering a man in Visalia, California. That seemed to end it.

But then a guy showed up who said that for $10,000 he’d tell us who was supplying the money for the hit man. The go-between was a narcotics pusher and con man from Bakersfield. Cohen said he was a shrewd, cold, vicious man. Anyway, this guy said he’d been given the money by the son of one of the growers in Delano.

Well, the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms people kind of let the case peter out. They said the grower’s son denied everything and the informant couldn’t be trusted.

However, Jerry Cohen found a closing report on the case in which there was a transcript of a recorded conversation between an undercover government agent and the go-between. In the transcript they talk about plans to kill me. Now the ATF never knew we had that report. So they lied to us.

Robert C. Mardian, one of the convicted Watergate defendants, who was Assistant Attorney General for Internal Security, knew about the case and requested the ATF people to keep him informed about all stages of the investigations. Did Mardi an have anything at all to do with stopping the investigation?

Chavez: That’s something we don’t know.

You may not be able to name every Medal of Freedom recipient in modern history, but you should know Cesar Chavez certainly. History counts.

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