Penthouse Retrospective

by Richard Ballad Originally Published: July, 1975

Cesar Chavez | 46-ish Years Ago This Month

Do you fear death?

Chavez: It’s not a reality to us. We’re so busy with work we haven’t time to think about it. We know there’s danger involved, but the pace is so fast we can’t take the time out to worry.

How far do you carry nonviolence? Is it more important than winning?

Chavez: Nonviolence is simply a method. Of itself it won’t change conditions. It has to be coupled with positive action. There are two traps we can fall into. One is to want to be nonviolent at the expense of not doing anything for anyone. You just lie there and take a beating. At the other extreme you have people who blame nonviolence if they’re defeated.

What you do is to commit yourself to non-violence and get a similar commitment from your people. It then becomes a lifelong commitment to win. You commit yourself to working around the clock, not taking vacations and being a servant — not just being of service. You have to accept criticism. You have to get suggestions from people. But you have to win.

Your people aren’t always non-violent. You had a case where you paid the Teamsters damages because one of your people shot and wounded a Teamster organizer.

Chavez: Yes. It happened. Our man had been beaten up very badly by two Teamsters. There was a history of fistfights involving these men. Finally, he did shoot one of them. We pulled him out of the picket line and paid damages — even though we would not have been legally responsible. It was an unfortunate incident but sometimes when a man is beaten enough he loses his temper and forgets. But you don’t find much of that among our workers.

You’re usually called a minority leader but you’re really a majority organizer, aren’t you?

Chavez: You’re the first one to pick up on that. It seems like a contradiction because so many farm workers are minority people. So you may jump to the conclusion that we are a minority group. But we don’t operate as a minority for two reasons. First, we consider that our union is for everybody in America. Second, the problem of farm workers is not a problem that was made by us and it can’t possibly be solved just by us. It must be solved by the whole society, by consumers, by citizens all over who know how it feels to be ripped off by powerful groups.

How much are you paid?

Chavez: For myself and my four kids at home — the others are married — we cost the union $2,300 in 1973.

How can you live on that?

Chavez: Well, we have no time payments. No bills. You see, it goes back to the 1950s when we first started to think about organizing. We had to decide between raising a lot of money — which we couldn’t do — or doing it without a great deal of money. So we committed ourselves to a very frugal life.

If I ask to see the books for your union, would you let me?

Chavez: Sure. We have nothing to hide. I will show you everything — my house, my garden, my Cadillac, my yacht! [Laughs.]

I know you don’t like the term, but a mystique has built up around you ….

Chavez: Well, I don’t think it’s a mystique. It’s a matter of friendships, of knowing the workers and of being with them. I was the first member of the union. I organized it. I consider myself more an organizer than a leader — though it’s impossible for me to tell you how I make that distinction. But I do. In the beginning it was just an awful lot of hard work and planning and plodding. I was scared when I tried to speak at my first meeting. Awfully scared. But eventually, I learned. And I met an awful lot of workers. I know thousands of them, personally. So a lot of things happen because of friendship, not because of any mystique, or secret power of personality, or any of that stuff. It’s all very flattering, but it’s not true.

Defending the farm workers to his last breath, Cesar Chavez dies in his sleep in 1993. The following year, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the Medal of Freedom, which remains our nation’s highest civilian honor — even though sometimes it seems as though we hand them out like candy at Halloween.

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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