Monday, November 09, 2009

Beyond the Saint: Cesar Chavez and the UFW in Miriam Pawel's THE UNION OF THEIR DREAMS

From THE LA TIMES review by Richard Steven Street, NOVEMBER 1, 2009

In "The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement," Miriam Pawel shifts the perspective away from Chávez to highlight eight second-level members of the UFW: Jessica Govea, daughter of a cotton picker who became a member of the union executive board; Jerry Cohen, a young lawyer who ran the UFW legal department; Eliseo Medina, a shy teenage field hand from Zacatecas, Mexico, who rose to become heir apparent to Chávez; Chris Hartmire, a Presbyterian minister who risked life and limb while transforming the California Migrant Ministry into an adjunct of Chávez's union; Sabino Lopez, an irrigator from Jalisco, Mexico, who led a grass-roots revolt within the UFW; Ellen Eggers, an idealistic college student who organized the union's boycott activities; Gretchen Laue, a free spirit looking for meaning; and Sandy Nathan, a Columbia University-trained lawyer writing legal briefs by hand while stuck in a Coachella Valley hole in the wall.

Devoted to changing the social order and bringing power to a class of people exploited to the hilt, they -- not Chávez -- formed the backbone of the union. Their stories are deeply inspiring and profoundly unsettling.

Those who know Pawel's work should not be surprised that she digs deep. A former editor and writer at The Times and Newsday, she has produced a complex and flawed masterpiece of collective biography.

Written in a sprightly, fast-paced, staccato style, "The Union of Their Dreams" tells a boisterous and messy story. Here, for instance, is Cohen, recently minted as an attorney, wandering into People's Bar in Delano, where a chance encounter with Chávez leads him to develop an awesome and daring union legal staff. After Chávez lost table grape contracts in 1970, Cohen told him that if he wanted to commit suicide, he ought to stand on the state Capitol steps and pour the pesticide parathion over his head, and twitch to death. Cohen lasted a decade. When he called for a subsistence wage for his staff, Chávez forced him out...

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