SAN FRANCISCO — I remember the middle-aged man with the Indian face, the short man in shirt sleeves, so often surrounded in public by politicians and movie stars. Even then-- in the 1960s--when Cesar Chavez was the most famous Mexican-American anybody could name, he courted irrelevance. Mexican-Americans (90% of us) are people of the city. Mexican-Americans are more apt to work at construction sites than in the fields.
In the '70s, Chavez was outmaneuvered by the Teamsters Union and by Sacramento politicians and perhaps by his own intractability. He was criticized in the liberal press for his inability to administer the United Farm Workers union he fought so hard to organize.
This summer Chavez has asked consumers not to buy, not to eat table grapes. As he has done before, Chavez went on a hunger strike--a moral tantrum. His age, his frailty made the tactic reckless. The world press issued bulletins on his deteriorating condition--it was likely he was experiencing hallucinations; his kidneys might shut down. This summer Chavez has been protesting the use of dangerous pesticides, dangerous to men and women in the fields, dangerous to consumers. This summer, as before, his cause has been just, his tactic desperate.
At the grocer's last week, I asked the man in the green apron if anyone had protested his display of grapes: "You're the first."
Last Sunday, Chavez created from denial--from nothing!--an international event. He would break his fast. For however long it would take the media to digest such an event, Delano was the moral center of the world, the throne of the lamb.
I saw hot-air balloons bobbling northeast above the valley floor as I drove south from San Francisco and I saw the lovely peregrinations of crop-dusting planes in the morning light. By the time I got to Delano, the morning was hot. A huge white tent--a circus tent, a revival tent, a pall--was raised over a parking lot at the union's compound. The place had the look of New Jerusalem, and yet without pleasance--more like a Red Cross station. The tent was full of people sitting on folding chairs. A Mass would be celebrated in thanksgiving for the breaking of the fast. An altar was prepared in the western nave--of the tent. I was late. A woman's voice over the loudspeaker--better heard in the parking lot than within the tent--was confiding a hagiography: "Cesar's condition"; details of the fast; comments relayed from Cesar's doctor. Three or four TV satellite trucks were parked to the north of the tent, generators humming. To the south, beyond waving shadows of trees thrown down upon the tent, were carnival booths--cold drinks and "Veggie Tamales."
Through the microphone: "Cesar has asked, when he comes, he wants no applause. And, please, everyone stay seated."
As I circled the outside of the tent for a place to stand, I noticed some men running, other men pressing the crowd toward the tent in dumb show--not touching but gesturing. I saw three or four cars approaching slowly through reels of dust. As near as I am to the table on which I am writing, I saw him through the window of an old green car. He was cradled upon the arm of someone in the back seat. Oh. His head lolling to the side, his eyes closed, his mouth open as if in sleep or in death. A doll. A sick child. The lamb of God. The car turned the corner of the tent as, through the microphone, the crowd inside the tent was cautioned of his coming: Shhhh. Shhhhh.
It is possible to see Chavez as the victim of his own strategy, forced to play out his most public persona. If he were my father, I think I might hate him; I would resent his not being mine. If I were a farmer I would rue the moral dramas he staged at my expense. If I were a farm worker, I might be lured by the better deal. As it was, I only wanted to hold him, protect him from the spectacle he had made.
Most of us--in the tent, outside the tent--could not see him during the Mass. He was somewhere in front, with the invisible movie stars and the invisible politicians. Outside, little boys climbed trees to see. The Mass began.
There were several priests. There was a choir. Catholic Mexico made a people of rituals and symbols.
Through the microphone: "Cesar is wearing a green linen shirt to honor the Filipino workers in the fields . . . ."
Indian Mexico found the tragic furrow within Spanish Catholicism. "FAST FOR LIFE" was the sign over the altar, both orthodox in its Catholicism and Mexican in its sensibility.
I confess that when I first watched Chavez from afar, in the '60s, I was embarrassed by him. He seemed too long-suffering, downcast--too Mexican. Defeat is the constant theme of Mexico. Conquered Mexico. Raped, diminished Mexico . . . . Lose a battle in Mexico and Mexico will raise a statue in your honor; an old joke.