Writer Miriam Pawel

The Pulitzer Prize winner explains her interest in the charismatic leader about whom she writes in her latest text, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez.

Miriam Pawel has spent 25 years as an award-winning reporter and editor. In her native New York, she helmed Newsday coverage of the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that won a Pulitzer Prize, and, in her adopted L.A. hometown, led her Los Angeles Times' team to another Pulitzer for its reporting on the 2003 wildfires. At the Times, she also bylined a series on the United Farm Workers, which led to her book, The Union of Their Dreams. Pawel's passion for piecing together the past began during her Harvard college years, and she's continued to delve into history with her latest text, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez—the first comprehensive biography of the national icon.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: March 31 is the birthday of one of this country’s most charismatic and important leaders, Cesar Chavez. In the 1970s, he galvanized farm workers and took on big agriculture demanding fair play for those in the field. The movement he created remains a touchstone for many in the nation.

“The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” is a new meticulously researched biography of the leader from award-winning journalist Miriam Pawel who’s written extensively on the farm workers’ struggle. Let’s take a look first at news footage of Chavez announcing one of his strikes.

[Clip]

Tavis: Pretty charismatic guy, huh?

Miriam Pawel: Yep, in a very untraditionally charismatic way.

Tavis: What do you mean by that?

Pawel: He was not a very good speaker. He was very quiet. He was not comfortable speaking, didn’t like to do it particularly. He was not, you know, charismatic in the way we think of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and yet he exerted this real power over people.

Tavis: Yeah. To your comparison of King, King is charismatic, certainly eloquent, but initially resisted the call to be the leader. Cesar Chavez the same way?

Pawel: No. I would actually say it was the reverse in some ways. He became the leader and the movement grew up around him.

Tavis: So there was no resistance on his part to accepting that mantel of leadership?

Pawel: Absolutely not, no. He very much took it and kept it and ran with it.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me jump to ask how much cooperation – and I’m asking this in part because I’ve already read a few articles that have talked about the difficulty – my word, not yours – but the difficulty that one runs into when one is trying to meticulously research a text and the people around said person don’t always want to be so cooperative.

How much difficulty did you have trying to get this done?

Pawel: Well, I knew going in that I was not going to have cooperation from the family and I didn’t need it. Fortunately for us, Cesar Chavez left us an incredible, meticulous record of his life both in documents and in tapes. And there were also many, many oral histories that were done over the years, in the early years, during the movement.

So I knew that there was this incredible sort of resource and wealth of material, particularly the tapes. And I also knew that I was not going to have cooperation from the family.

Tavis: Let me take both of those. Why not cooperate if you’re a member of the family? This is a guy, I would think, that you want to see more celebrated.

Pawel: You would think.

Tavis: His birthday is a holiday, what, in three states? A state holiday?

Pawel: Right.

Tavis: Maybe perhaps one day nationally. But why would you not want to see, you know, this kind of treatment given to him if it’s going to elevate his stature?

Pawel: Well, I think that’s a really good question and one that probably should be directed at them, not me. But I will answer that the family has very much wanted to maintain control of the story. They have not felt that anyone who was not their designated person should be the one to tell that story. You know, I was not the person that they wanted to do that.

Tavis: To your point about this treasure trove, as it were, of information, I was going to ask whether or not it was by design. Clearly it was by design that he put this stuff on tape and on paper.

Pawel: Absolutely.

Tavis: But was it by design for the historical record or just happenstance?

Pawel: No, absolutely. He had a sense of his own historical importance. There’s no question. And he talks in the tapes often and says things like – he has people reminisce onto the tapes and says, “Let’s record this for history.”

So here was a guy who, you know, in his life kind of created to some degree his own mythology and used that as an organizer. You know, he made his birthday a union holiday and did certain things to sort of embellish things in the interest of organizing.

But he understood, I think, that in death the ideography doesn’t particularly do any service and that the full story, you know, needed to be told and should be told. So he made sure that material was saved so that the history could be told in all of its complexity.

Tavis: And yet, Miriam, that sounds like an interesting tightrope for me because it’s such a fine line that on the one hand, to your point, he would use these realities, use these moments, these holidays, etc., use his own personality as an organizing tool.

On the other hand, if you’re not careful with that, it becomes narcissistic. It becomes – you know what I’m getting at here. How did he balance that tightrope?

Pawel: Well, I think there’s a point at which the movement evolved into a cultive personality. And that was sort of tragic for the union itself and for the organization of farm workers. You know, I think it’s really hard.

He moved to Delano, California, the middle of nowhere, in 1962 with no money, nothing, you know, in order to organize a union for farm workers, which was just a kind of crazy idea. And in 1965 when the strike started, no one had heard of him and, in 1969, he was on the cover of Time Magazine.

So what does that – you know, that’s a remarkable trajectory, and the union became synonymous with him. And that had a lot of consequences for the later years.

Tavis: I’ll go back to the beginning in just a second. But since you mentioned that the movement eventually devolves into a cultive personality, unpack that for me.

Pawel: Well, he was a very controlling figure and a lot of the strongest organizers and people around him ended up being driven out in one way or another, some in very kind of ruthless ways. He did a lot of things in the interest of keeping control and shaping the movement in the way that he wanted it to go.

And that was a difficult transition. I mean, he wanted to turn – he never wanted to be a traditional labor leader. He wanted to try to have something that was a cross between a union and a movement.

And when that became a difficult balance, he pulled away from the union part of it and shifted toward the movement. So he got involved with Synanon and encounter group techniques and all sorts of things in the later years that had a lot of consequences for the union.

Tavis: To be clear, in the end, he was withdrawn. But fair to say, he was a bit paranoid? Is that overstating it?

Pawel: There are people who say that. I don’t know. I mean, I’m not a psychiatrist. I wouldn’t make a diagnosis. I think he certainly in the later years – in some way, his reputation grew exponentially as he got away from the fields.

So whereas he was not a presence anymore with farm workers where he started, he became a tremendously important symbolic figure for Chicanos for what was then the sort of growing Chicano movement.

He was tremendously in demand as a speaker at colleges around the country. So he became kind of a brand, you know, even in the later years of his life before his death.

Tavis: All told, did the substance of what he accomplished measure up to the symbolism that he portrayed?

Pawel: I think that’s a hard – it depends on how you define the substance. I mean, what he accomplished was to give, you know, a generation of people, the farm workers and the people who worked for the union, a sense of their own power.

I mean, he trained a whole – you know, his legacy is very much a generation of organizers who took those lessons and you see even today in the Immigrant Rights Movement where there were a lot of people who actually grew up in the UFW using the techniques that they learned from Chavez.

So he has an enormous legacy, but not necessarily in the way in which we might think of him and not in terms of a sustained organization of farm workers.

Tavis: I could have started our conversation here, but let’s go back to the beginning. Who is Cesar Chavez and what’s happening in his life and in his world that motivates him to make this move to become this kind of organizer?

Pawel: So he was born in Yuma, Arizona, had a pretty reasonable – grew up on a farm. The family lost the farm in the Depression, becomes part of the migrant stream when he’s 12 years old in 1939 and lives as a farm worker family. So he really experiences firsthand, you know, all of the exploitation and both the physical hardships and just the indignity in the way farm workers were treated, and carries that with him for, you know, a long time.

I mean, that drives him and that anger drives him. And in 1952, he has been working the fields. He’s worked in a lumber yard.

He’s kind of worked his way out of the fields and meets a man named Fred Ross who was a community organizer, important figure in California history. You know, that’s the beginning of his apprenticeship as an organizer. He spends 10 years working with Fred for the Community Service Organization and really learning to organize across California. He has kept diaries and journals from that period of time.

Also, he was required to do reports so you can read kind of in 1956 every day he wrote exactly what he did that day. You know, whether it was driving Mrs. Garcia to the doctor or going out to try to sell Christmas trees. I mean, he just kept this.

So you can really kind of see his evolution and who he becomes over that period of time, and then his frustration with that organization.

Tavis: How would you define his unique leadership style?

Pawel: He had an ability to make people – he was charismatic. He had an ability to organize people one by one, to look in their eyes, to have them want to do things for him, and he led by example. I mean, I think that that’s the – when he is at his height of popularity and sort of, you know, rock stardom, it’s not because of what he says, but because of what he did.

So it’s the marches, it’s the fast, it’s his incredible commitment and persistence that just made people want to join in and made people feel good about themselves, that they were able – I mean, the boycott was really what led to the first contracts. And the boycott was a way for people all over the country.

It’s like all you have to do is not buy grapes and you’re helping these poor farm workers. So he sort of was this strategic genius about figuring out ways to overcome obstacles like that.

Tavis: How would you define what Chavez’s enduring legacy is?

Pawel: I think his enduring legacy is to give us – in his complexity, in all of his multi-dimensions, to give us a sense of the poor people who have nothing but their own lives to give for this really can organize and can accomplish things.

That’s just a sort of a remarkable thing that he did and I don’t know that we’ve seen it a lot. We’re seeing it in some little pockets now. That was an enormous legacy.

And in the fields for the generation that he affected, it gave the farm workers a sense of their own dignity and their own power. Unfortunately, that’s not true anymore in the fields. And I think the other thing that he left us with is a generation of organizers who really did come out of the movement.

There are so many people all around the country now in different ways who are organizing for different causes who got their start in the UFW and who are now passing on those lessons that they learned to another generation.

Tavis: What’s happening in the ether that’s allowing for this renaissance, if you will, of focus on Chavez? Your book is out, there’s a movie that’s out. What’s causing that, number one, and what do you hope or think the long-term impact of that will be as we get to know more about this man?

Pawel: You know, I think some of it is just the passage of time, you know.

Tavis: Right.

Pawel: You know, it’s kind of amazing that it’s been 20 years since he died that there hasn’t been a book or a movie for different reasons. The movie, because of the family’s control, and the book for partly the same reason. So I think that some of it is just a coincidence and the passage of time.

Some of it is the demographics of the country that are changing. Some of it is President Obama drawing a lot more attention to Cesar Chavez with adopting “Si, se puede” as his campaign slogan and naming parks and ships after him.

So there is a resurgence of interest and I think there’s a whole new generation that, you know, doesn’t know anything about him at all. So there’s kind of a hunger to understand more about who he was.

Tavis: Well, thanks to you, we will learn a lot more about him. The book is called “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” a biography written by Miriam Pawel. Miriam, congrats on the text, and thanks for all the work.

Pawel: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you on.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 14, 2014 at 12:18 pm