I've been trying to find time, between book events around California, to compose a post that conveys some sense of the moving and powerful discussion last week at the book launch at the National Steinbeck Center. Key participants in the UFW movement -- Jerry Cohen, Chris Hartmire, Sabino Lopez, Sandy Nathan, Ellen Eggers, Chava Bustamante and Scott Washburn -- talked about their own roles, about their portrayal in the book, and about what they learned from reading "The Union of Their Dreams." At points, they confronted one another -- and offered public apologies for actions they took long ago.
The topic that evoked the most passionate exchanges was Chavez's decision in 1981 to fire a number of workers who had been elected to serve as paid union representatives. Chris, a top aide to Chavez during that period, said he found that episode the saddest part of the book and that he learned from reading those chapters "what it meant for those key leaders to rise to this position of leadership and power and dignity and purpose, and then what it meant to them to have it snuffed out."
Sabino, who was one of those paid reps, then turned to Chris, who sat next to him on stage. Sabino told of his surprise when he read about how Chavez ultimately turned on Chris, who had loyally helped to oust the farm worker leaders. "He paid you with the same coin," Sabino told Chris. "Finally, you paid the same price. And I'm glad. You were a victim too .... I'm glad Cesar did it to you."
"I'm glad too," Chris replied. "But for a different reason. I needed to leave, and I wasn't able to leave myself."
A question from the audience about whether Chavez had changed during the 1970s led to a dramatic finish to the evening. I answered the question by saying that while some people are committed to the idea that Chavez was one thing, and everything was good, and then something happend and he changed .... I don't believe the historical record supports that idea. Chavez was very consistent in his vision and in his commitment to the idea of a voluntary movement, based on shared sacrifice and community. I pointed to a section of the book where Chavez talks early on about his own leadership and about the need to purge those who disagree with his priorities. We discussed how external changes, like the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, made the differing visions more apparent than they had been while the union was fighting wars. The program ended and the audience was beginning to leave when Chava Bustamante took the microphone. A leader in the vegetable fields in the 1970s, Chava had earlier spoken eloquently about power -- what it was like as a farmworker to learn how to exercise power and to be able to wield power successfully. Now he said he had realized listening to the discussion that indeed, Chavez was consistent. "Cesar didn't change,'' Chava said. "We did. We grew up."
The program was videotaped -- thanks to ace filmmaker Eric Kutner for making the trip to Salinas from LA -- and I'll post some video highlights as soon as they're available.
Jerry Cohen talks with Chris Hartmire at the National Steinbeck Center