Cesar, who was always good at symbols, saved his best for last: a simple pine box, fashioned by his brother’s hands, carried unceremoniously through the Central Valley town he made famous. With some 35,000 people looking on.
Here was meaning enough, both for those who need it blunt and for those who like it subtle. No one–especially not the newspaper and TV reporters whose liberal sympathies had been one of his main assets–could fail to hear that pine box speak: Cesar Chavez’s commitment to voluntary poverty extended even unto death. And perhaps a few among the crowd would get the deeper reference. Burial insurance had been Cesar’s first organizing tool in building the National Farmworkers Association back in 1962. Many farmworkers, then and now, die so badly in debt that they can’t afford to be buried. By joining up with Cesar and paying dues to the association, workers earned the right to take their final rest in a pine box, built by brother Richard.
The funeral march and picnic were near perfect. The friendly crowd was primarily Chicano, people who had driven a couple of hours up and over the Grapevine from Los Angeles to honor the man who was the authentic representative of their political coming of age in postwar America. Martin Luther King is the standard comparison, but Cesar Chavez was King and Jackie Robinson, too. Chicanos and Mexicans had played well in their own leagues-they built a lot of power in the railroad, mining and factory unions of the Southwest- but Cesar forced his way into the political big leagues, where Chicanos had always been excluded. And, like Robinson, he played on his own terms.
Not only Chicanos but also all manner of farmworker supporters marched at the funeral: liberal politicians, celebrities, Catholic priests, grape and lettuce boycotters. This was fitting too, as Chavez had always insisted that his greatest contribution to the farmworker movement was the consumer boycott. The boycott, he argued, ended the debilitating isolation of farmworkers that had doomed their earlier organizing. And so it was right that the boycotters marched at Cesar’s funeral, and it was their buttons (the word “grapes” or “uvas” with a ghostbuster line through it) that everyone wore.
What the march lacked was farmworkers, at least in mass numbers. Several buses had come down from the Salinas Valley, and farmworkers from the immediate area were well represented, but as a group, farmworkers added little weight to the funeral. I saw no banners from U.F.W. locals, nor did I see a single button or sign proclaiming the idea of farmworker power. And this, too, was symbolically perfect, for at the time of Cesar Chavez’s death, the U.F.W. was not primarily a farmworker organization. It was a fundraising operation, run out of a deserted tuberculosis sanitarium in the Tehachapi Mountains, far from the fields of famous Delano, staffed by members of Cesar’s extended family and using as its political capital Cesar’s legend and the warm memories of millions of aging boycotters.
It was my second funeral march for Cesar Chavez. The first had been two days earlier, back home in WatsonviIle, in the Pajaro Valley, four and a half hours by car from Delano. Throughout the 1970s, Watsonville, together with nearby Salinas, had been a center of U.F.W. strength. Back then, most of the major growers (the two valleys specialize in vegetable row crops) were signed up with either the U.F.W. or the Teamsters, and pushed by the militancy of several hundred Chavistas, the two unions had won increasingly better contracts. In the 1980s the entry-level hourly wage moved up over $7, and working conditions on U.F.W. crews significantly improved. But by the end of the decade that had all come apart. In Watsonville, the U.F.W. now has only a couple of apple contracts, covering no more than a few hundred workers. In Salinas, the Teamsters still have a contract with the giant Bud Antle/Dole, but for most workers, unions have been replaced by farm labor contractors, and average hourly wages have fallen to around $5.