Sunday, March 30, 2014


On March 31, 1927 Cesar Chavez was born.  And each year, March 31 is marked across California as a State holiday in his memory.

It was my privilege to know Cesar Chavez when I was a priest of the Diocese of Fresno, and to work with him over many years as the secretary to the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Farm Labor, headed by Bishop Joseph Donnelly, then Auxiliary Bishop of Hartford, Connecticut.  Cesar died on April 23, 1993, it was a grace to be able to celebrate his Funeral Mass at Delano, CA where the farm worker union got its real start.

To mark this year's anniversary of his death, two films and a new book have been issued:

     Documentary Film:   Cesar's Last Fast      This documentary shows many clips of footage from the days and years of Cesar's work in the fields, along with various portions of interviews with the major close collaborators of Cesar over the years.  The documentary offers helpful insights into the incredible effort by Cesar Chavez to bring dignity to farm workers, and to have them receive a just wage, employee benefits, and the right to bargain collectively with the farmers.

 In my opinion, the documentary would have been far more powerful and successful if there were fewer scenes of "talking heads."  Various old film footage could have been interwoven with several vignettes from a broader base of collaborators--especially more farm workers themselves.

      Major Motion Picture:   Cesar Chavez      This motion picture opened across the country in many theaters, and captures the beginning of Cesar's efforts up to the signing of a large number of contracts with the growers of table grapes in the greater Delano area.  The end of the film indicates that this event would be followed five years later by the enactment in California the the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the first genuine effort to extend many of the rights of the National Labor Relations Act [1935] to agricultural workers.  Sadly, until this day, both agricultural workers and domestic employees remain excluded from coverage under the NLRA.

          Governor Jerry Brown appointed me to serve as the first Chairman of the State's new Act to give the right to secret ballot elections to farm workers, and to conduct those elections, certify the results of the elections, and to handle all complaints of unfair labor practices.

Major New Book:      The Crusades of Cesar Chavez  by Miriam Pawel  (2014:  Bloomsbury Press, New York).  In my opinion, this is probably the most comprehensive and accurate book on the life and work of Cesar Chavez.  It is extremely factual, and Pawel lets those facts speak for themselves.  She has no agenda or desired outcome in the book.  The book highlights the complexity of Cesar Chavez as a person, and does not hesitate to point out all of the virtues and shortcomings of Cesar's work in trying to organize California's farm workers.

          If you are interested in obtaining one of the best books on Cesar Chavez, this is the one.

While the life and work of Cesar Chavez is indeed complex, in the long view, he followed God's plan for him and gave his entire life and energies on behalf of farm workers.  Could he have done some things differently? Of course.  But that is true of every single one of us when we look back on our lives and our work.

Some 21 years after the death of Cesar Chavez, these two films and one book serve to capture the totality of a man motivated by his deep faith in God and his trust that God's grace would help bring about lasting justice for the millions of people who produce the food that we all consume day after day.