The Lay Catholic Activist: Cesar Chavez in his twenties
It is 90 years since Cesar Chavez was born. In observance of his birthday, we present an excerpt from Frank Bardacke's Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of United Farm Workers, examing Chavez's earliest years as an organizer, working under the influence of Father Donald McDonnell.
Chavez and other members of the Community Service Organization. Courtesy of the César E. Chávez Foundation.
Cesar Chavez left the North Gila Valley with two other treasures besides his memories. Although he had not liked school, he had become a good, quick learner out of the classroom. One uncle taught him to read Spanish; another read him the Mexican newspapers. A classic autodidact, throughout his life he would suck up one subject after another, move from one enthusiasm to the next: the art of shooting pool, Catholic Social Action, the theory and practice of Saul Alinsky, the life of Gandhi, the history of unionism in the fields, the varieties of religious experience, the intricacies of labor law, printing, faith healing, the Synanon Game, theories of scientific management. His biographer Jacques Levy, who was also a dog trainer and helped Chavez train his two dogs, told me that Cesar was the most absorbed, committed student of dog training he had ever met. Chavez read, he questioned, he listened, he learned.
Just as Cesar did not learn to read in school, he did not learn religion in church. There was no church in the North Gila Valley; his mother taught him his first prayers, as well as the power of charity and nonviolence. The spiritual leader of the family, she transformed a folk Catholicism filled with Mexican dichos (popular aphorisms) into a rough moral sensibility that helped the Chavezes through their tough times. Her improvised ethical code was backed up by the formal Catholicism of Cesar’s grandmother, who had spent time in a convent; she taught the children Latin prayers and Bible stories. Chavez’s religious faith would not be shaken by the loss of his childhood or by his family’s trials. In Brawley, a regular stop on the migrant circuit, he was a crucero, an altar boy, who helped the priest celebrate Mass. Nor did his mild adolescent rebellion — it didn’t amount to much more than pachuco-style clothes and a taste for jazz — ever interfere with his devotion to the Church. Many years later he said, “I don’t think that I could base my will to struggle on cold economics or on some political doctrine. I don’t think there would be enough to sustain me. For me the base must be faith.”
So it is not at all odd that a Roman Catholic priest was the one who introduced Chavez to politics in 1950. At twenty-three years old, Cesar was a World War II vet trying to make his way in the world. He had joined the Navy when he was seventeen, “mostly to get away from farm labor,” he told Levy. Two years later, in 1946, after serving as a deck hand in the Pacific and a painter in Guam, he was discharged. Like Gilbert Padilla, he was uncomfortable in the fields after the war. He worked in cantaloupes, grapes, cotton, and apricots. He tried his hand at celery, where he could have earned higher wages, but he didn’t have a buddy on the crew to help him, and he couldn’t learn it fast enough. “Oh my God it was awful,” he said. “I couldn’t keep up with the crew . . . I was soft. I quit about ten- thirty . . . It was animal like.”
In 1948 he married Helen Fabela, a girl from a farmworker family in Delano. On their honeymoon they toured the California Missions, from Sonoma to San Diego. They set up house in Delano but soon moved to San Jose, where Chavez’s brother Richard had a steady job on an apricot farm and could get Cesar part-time work in the orchards. Chavez walked the streets looking for some job away from the fields but found nothing. Trying to escape low wages, he, his father, and Richard share-cropped strawberries for two seasons, but they could have earned more picking someone else’s berries. Soon two babies, one son and one daughter, arrived. Cesar was now a family man, unsure of how he was going to make a living and what he wanted to do with his life.
When Father Donald McDonnell knocked on his door, wearing a Roman collar and speaking a scholar’s Spanish, Cesar was inclined to listen. When Father McDonnell explained that he was trying to set up a church in San Jose’s Mexican barrio, Chavez, who attended Mass at a Portuguese parish across town, was enthusiastic. Teacher and student had met.
McDonnell quickly understood that his new student did not need to be brought into the bosom of the Church. What was lacking, and what McDonnell was particularly able to provide, was the connection between Catholic faith and politics. The injustice of the world had been seared into Cesar’s heart when his childhood toys were replaced by a short-handled hoe, but the great disjunction between the world of the North Gila Valley and the world of California seemed impossible to remedy. What Chavez had seen of politics had not impressed him. He had been on the periphery of union struggles in the late 1930s that had ended in defeat. Strikes seemed to be all symbolic show; union leaders were remote, union politics filled with debilitating internal disputes. His father’s willingness to walk off the job when slighted or in defense of others who had been mistreated was fine and dignified, but it changed nothing. One could hope to get out of the fields, but Chavez saw no basis for any hope in the fields, and without hope there could be no politics.
Father McDonnell was a professional of political hope. He was only five years older than Cesar, not yet thirty, but he spoke with the authority of a priest and the confidence of an intellectual who had worked on his ideas and was not just repeating a memorized doctrine. He had learned those ideas the conventional way, in school, from a favorite teacher and in the company of fellow, similarly inspired, students. At St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Father Joseph Munier taught the basic course in Catholic Social Action, which included careful readings of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), and Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (“In the Fortieth Year”). McDonnell considered, discussed, debated, and worried over the encyclicals. He prayed for understanding. He and a few others formed a study group, “a seminary within the seminary,” to consider Munier’s teachings. They studied Spanish.
When he was ordained in 1947 and sent to San Jose, McDonnell tried to put those ideas into practice. He kept in close touch with Father Thomas McCullough, a childhood friend and seminary mate and who was trying to do the same in Stockton. Their pastoral duties were mainly in the Mexican barrios. McCullough got involved in a tomato strike, while McDonnell spent a lot of time at bracero camps. Their early experiences were encouraging. In 1948, the two went to Archbishop John J. Mitty of the San Francisco diocese and asked to be released from their territorially based parishes so that they could work exclusively with Mexican farm laborers in central and northern California. Mitty granted their request, and four members of St. Patrick’s “seminary within the seminary” became the Spanish-speaking Mission Band. Their ministry continued for twelve years, until 1962.
When Chavez first met McDonnell, the priest “sat with me past midnight telling me about social justice and the Church’s stand on farm labor and reading from the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII in which he upheld labor unions. I would do anything to get the Father to tell me more about labor history. I began going to the bracero camps with him to help with Mass, to the city jail with him to talk to prisoners, anything to be with him so that he could tell me more about the farm labor movement.” The lessons went on for months, and their relationship went on for years. Father McDonnell, Chavez said, “radically changed my life.”
If there is a geometry of the soul, and if we could look at Chavez’s soul in 1950 before he met Father McDonnell, we would see two strong parallel lines, one marked “Catholic faith” and the other “anger at injustice.” Most of Cesar Chavez was bracketed by those two lines: Catholic faith up above, close to the surface, and easy to see; anger at injustice down below, hidden from sight. The lines were parallel; they were not contradictory, but they could never meet. Chavez was not torn between the two, stretched apart as if upon a medieval rack. It was not a tortured man who met Father McDonnell at the door. It was just that Catholic faith and social justice had little to do with one another. His mother’s religious charity resonated between the lines, but Chavez knew that charity was not nearly strong enough to right the wrong that his family had suffered in the fields. Father McDonnell rearranged the lines. Catholic faith, Father McDonnell argued, had everything to do with social justice. Traveling the streets of the San Jose barrio, Sal Si Puedes, in his collar and black suit, he carried four pictures with him to make his point: a worker’s shack and a grower’s mansion; a grower’s labor camp and the high-priced San Francisco apartment building owned by that same grower. Catholics had the power and duty to right this wrong, McDonnell argued, and he had the encyclicals to back him up.
Rerum Novarum and Leo XIII’s four encyclicals that lead up to it, although not without antecedents in the thought of Aquinas, were a significant departure in Catholic doctrine. Since the fifteenth century the official church had unstintingly condemned the contemporary world, and Catholic doctrine was mostly about protecting the power, claims, and prerogatives of the heavenly city in the face of the growing secular one. This trend had been neatly summed up by Leo’s immediate predecessor, Pius IX, who detailed his condemnation of all things modern in his Syllabus of Errors. Leo, however, without surrendering the Church’s jurisdiction over matters of the soul, called on Catholics to participate in solving the world’s social, economic, and political problems. By the time he issued Rerum Novarum, in 1891, those problems, especially the problems of the European proletariat, were plain to see.
Rerum Novarum begins with an acknowledgment of the raging class war between the “rich” and the “proletariat.” It moves quickly to a defense of private property, an attack on socialism, a call for charity from the rich, and an appeal to the proletariat to form worker associations, preferably Catholic ones. This last point was a direct intervention in a contemporary debate about whether European Catholic workers should join unions, and if they should, whether they should join existing unions or form their own Christian ones. Leo’s words on the subject of unions (he always called them “associations”) continued to be cited more than a hundred years later by Catholics engaged in union struggles, although his most significant contributions were his emphasis on “social justice” and his assertion that Catholics, both clergy and laity, had not only a legitimate right but a positive duty to struggle for it. His entire argument was logically presented, and the encyclical, although virtually ignored by secular intellectuals, became an influential popular manifesto, combining an argument against socialism with a call for proletarian political action.
Leo’s argument is that production and trade have been brought under the power of a “very few exceedingly rich men,” who have “laid a yoke almost of slavery on the unnumbered masses of non-owning workers.” Socialists take advantage of the situation by proposing commonly owned property, administered by the state in the interests of the workers. This is wrong because property is a natural right inherent in the natural differences among men. Justice, however, requires that each man earn a high enough wage to provide “a life without hardship” for his wife and family. Justice can be achieved only when the rich, the state, the employers, the workers, and the Church properly understand and carry out their duties and obligations. The rich have the duty of charity; the state has the duty to establish regulations about working hours, rest times, child labor, and housing; the employers have the duty to pay a decent family wage; the workers have the duty to join together in associations for their mutual benefit and to behave themselves properly; and the Church has the duty to teach everyone else their duties, and thus to guide society away from the debilitating war between the classes, and to the natural harmony of all.
The encyclical closes with a description of the essential character of the new worker associations. It is the culmination of Leo’s argument, his answer to Lenin’s question of a decade later, “What is to be done?”. The associations are of “first importance,” Leo writes, and are the instrument through which the workers “will rise from their most wretched state and enjoy better conditions.” But securing these better conditions, necessary to social justice, is not the primary purpose of the new associations. Within them, Catholic clergy and laity must guide workers to the conduct necessary for eternal salvation. Leo is unbending on that issue: “It is clear . . . that moral and religious perfection ought to be regarded as [the associations’] principal goal . . . [for] what would it profit a worker to secure through an association an abundance of goods, if his soul through lack of its proper food should run the risk of perishing?” Thus, workers must refrain from “violence and rioting.” They must not injure the property of others. They must not associate with socialists, “vicious men who craftily hold out exaggerated hopes and make huge promises . . . usually ending in vain regrets and the destruction of wealth. Finally, Leo pragmatically observes that the workers’ righteous behavior is not only good for the soul, it is also good strategy. It will move the conscience of the rich and mobilize the resources of the state. Leo cites the early Christians as models: “Yet destitute of wealth and power, they succeeded in winning the good will of the rich and the protection of the mighty.”
Rerum Novarum provided papal authority for what came to be called Catholic Social Action, and for the next seventy-five years, up until Vatican II, the encyclical served as the basis for Catholic social doctrine. But Leo’s absolute opposition to socialism and his call for the reform of capitalism provided a large space for serious disagreement over theory, strategy, and tactics. In Europe, Catholic liberals and worker priests, citing Leo XIII, helped build Christian unions and worked to reform capitalism. Catholic conservatives, also citing Leo, developed the idea of harmony into a full- fledged corporatism, and flirted (or worse) with fascism, especially in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. In the midst of worldwide Depression, Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, in 1931, built on Leo’s thought while stretching the space for disagreement to the left with its emphasis on the “social character of ownership,” its warning against individualism, and its assertion that “the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces.”
In the United States, the Church received special dispensation to participate in “neutral” unions rather than to build separate Christian ones, and Catholic activists both helped build the labor movement and later joined the attack against Communists that so debilitated the CIO after World War II. The Reverend Joseph Ryan, a principal architect of the 1919 Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction, which called for a minimum wage, subsidized housing, labor participation in industrial management, child labor laws, and social insurance thirteen years before “New Deal” was even a slogan, later used Leo XIII as a papal shield against conservative Catholic opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s program. Reverend Charles Coughlin — the popular radio priest who deserted FDR in 1934, defended the Nazis, and blamed the Depression on Jewish bankers — also was a great proponent of Rerum Novarum. The warring radio appeals of Ryan and Coughlin in the mid-1930s set the outer limits of clergy-approved left and right Catholic opinion during the Depression, but Coughlin’s trajectory alone maps the territory: in the name of opposition to Bolshevism and in support of the reform of capitalism, he moved easily from early Roosevelt champion to Roosevelt enemy without ever deserting the ideas of Leo XIII.
Cesar Chavez would come to use Rerum Novarum in the same general way as other lay Catholic activists of the left: as doctrinal justification for building a workers’ organization. But for Chavez, Leo provided more than just papal support for his organizing work. When Chavez formed the Farm Workers Association in 1962, the precursor of the UFW, he called it an “association,” not a “Union.” Its potential members, California farmworkers, were almost all Catholics, and Cesar Chavez’s piety was used as a way to attract and recruit them. Catholic symbols and ideology dominated the association’s, and then later the UFW’s, presentation of itself, to both farm workers and potential supporters. Membership in the organizations was not meant to be just about earning better wages and improved benefits; it was supposed to be good for the soul. Cesar Chavez insisted on this last latter point. In the struggle, farmworkers would learn the virtues of sacrifice, and through sacrifice would become better people, closer to God. Even UFW strategy was leonine: the exemplary conduct of the farmworkers in struggle was meant to mobilize the good will of the more fortunate and win over the protection of the state.
The hand of Leo was not only manifest in the organization, it also shaped the internal life of the UFW leader. Rerum Novarum, as taught by Father McDonnell, not only connected the two central claims on Cesar’s soul — loyalty to his mother’s religion and anger about his childhood disaster — but also was a basis for his famous will and intensity of purpose, a certainty that if not God (and maybe even He) then at least the Pope was on his side.
One other religious influence was formative for Chavez in this period before the founding of the union: cursillismo. The cursillo movement was begun on the island of Mallorca in 1932 by the young men’s branch of Acción Católica and was firmly entrenched within the right wing of organizations inspired by Leo XIII. The Cursillos de Christiandad were developed by the young laymen to inspire adolescent men in preparation for a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the Church of St. James in Compostela in northwestern Spain. The actual pilgrimage was delayed first by the Spanish Civil War, then by World War II, and didn’t take place until 1948, by which time the cursillos, formalized during the period of waiting, had taken on a life of their own as instruments of religious renewal, and Acción Católica had become a major supporter of the Franco counterrevolution. In the 1950s the cursillos jumped to the old Spanish colonies of Latin America and the Philippines. They hit the United States in 1957, brought over by a pair of Spanish air cadets being trained by the U.S. Air Force in Waco, Texas.
In the United States cursillismo affirmed a specifically Spanish-rooted Catholicism for Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, who until then had not found a comfortable home within the institutional Church, dominated as it was by Irish Catholic clergy. Cursillo activists, both priests and laymen, brought Spanish liturgy, Latino folk music, and popular cultural traditions into regular church services. A form of Catholic Pentecostalism, it nevertheless always enjoyed a relationship of mutual support with church authorities. Like the Catholic Mass and other rituals, the cursillo itself is a highly structured experience where, according to one of the movement’s two most important leaders, Juan Hervas, “nothing is trusted to improvisation.” Similarly, the Cursillo Movement (the name has now been trademarked) is directed by a tightly structured organization, where absolute authority resides in a spiritual director appointed by the head of the local diocese. He in turn works through a local secretariat made up predominantly of laypeople.
Cesar Chavez did his cursillo in the late 1950s or early ’60s, according to his brother Richard. Richard’s uncertainty about the date comes from the air of secrecy that surrounded the early cursillos, and from Chavez’s own subsequent reluctance to talk about his commitment to the movement. The cursillo is a four-day experience, which a person goes through only once. The initiate has to be invited by a veteran who has remained active in post-cursillo activities. Each potential participant also has to be approved by the regional secretariat. He must have been baptized, should be a stable adult between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-five, not be going through any emotional crisis, and be either an actual or a potential leader in the community. Although women can make a cursillo separate from men — but wives cannot go through the experience unless their husbands have done so first — the movement’s emphasis has always been on making Christianity a “manly” activity.
The four days are heavily rehearsed events. A leadership group of ten people, a mixture of clergy and laity, takes a few months to prepare for a cursillo that will initiate forty new members. On the first day, the initiates, thinking they are on a semiconventional Catholic retreat, are asked to meditate on their own sinfulness. They are prohibited from talking to one another, and all efforts are directed toward making them feel helpless and lonely. The first meditation is introduced like this: “Would you like to have the true story of your life filmed? Would you be able to view all your actions, your ambitions, your pretenses, your conversations on the screen without blushing? Would you want your friends to be present at the showing: Would you want your children, your mother, your wife, your sweetheart to know it?” The following three days are meant to resurrect the sinners, through singing, gifts, relaxed conversation, joyful witness in small groups, and a final meeting with family and friends, who welcome the revived initiates into the company of cursillo. It is all meant to produce an atmosphere of intimate spirituality, and characteristically the new cursillistas express feeling “joy,” “euphoria,” and “a new enthusiasm for life.”
The new recruits then join the “army of militant Christians” who will combat the enemy of “lifeless Christianity.” The military language is quite pronounced in cursillista manuals. According to Hervas the cursillista mission is “(a) to look for militants; (b) to choose them; (c) to welcome them; (d) to train them; (e) to use them.” How to use them is not as clear as the injunction to use them. Cursillistas learn that in a good Christian life, “piety and study are the inhale, and action is the exhale.” A committed cursillista is expected to participate in follow-up weekly events with his fellow initiates and in monthly events with a wider group; to take responsibility for leading new retreats; and to participate in regular church activities with a new spiritual intensity. But what to do in the world, beyond becoming a better Christian and a cursillo leader, is left undefined.
Chavez participated in follow-up cursillo events after his initiation and ultimately used cursillismo’s silence on what the new initiates should do to his own organizational advantage. UFW organizers recruited farmworkers from cursillo groups, sometimes even waiting for them as they left the last meeting of the four-day course, so that, in the words of Brother Keith Warner, they could “pluck fish from the river as they flowed out of the cursillo.” Cursillo leaders, both clergy and laymen, came to the aid of the early UFW while the more conservative Catholic bishops remained uncommitted. For a while, support for the UFW became the “exhale” of action for many cursillistas. The cursillista theme song, “De Colores,” became the UFW anthem.
Both cursillismo and Catholic Social Action assumed the existence of hierarchies within both the Church and society. The cursillista rhetoric of forming an “army” for Christ had its analogue among the legions of clergy who answered the call expressed in Rerum Novarum to work for social justice. Armies, like the Catholic Church, are not characteristically egalitarian. They depend on the willing submission of the lesser to the higher orders — as did Leo XIII. The word “democracy” does not appear in Rerum Novarum. To leave no doubt about his intentions, Leo followed that encyclical with another, Graves de Communi Re (“On Christian Democracy”), in which he warned that all Catholic initiatives in the secular world should be “formed under Episcopal authority,” and instructed Catholic clergy to be vigilant “lest any under the pretext of good should cause the vigor of sacred discipline to be relaxed.” In the United States, clerical advocates of Rerum Novarum on the left and the right fully accepted hierarchical prerogative.
Chavez did not see anything contradictory in his commitment to both social justice and institutional hierarchy. His mixture of Mexican folk Catholicism, cursillismo, and the progressive tradition of Leo XIII was not shaken by Pope John XXIII’s sweeping move for democratic reform in the church by means of Vatican II. Although Chavez’s commitment to farmworkers and the poor came before John’s 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra, and the subsequent articulations of liberation theology, Chavez never got interested in the work of low-level Catholic priests and Catholic laity in the slums of Brazil and the rural areas of Mexico and Central America. His autodidacticism led him to an idiosyncratic study of widely diverse political leaders and their theories of society and social change: St. Paul, Gandhi, John L. Lewis, Eugene Debs, Machiavelli, Charles Dietrich, Peter Drucker. None of the Latin American Catholic revolutionaries of the post–Vatican II era — Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian priest who was the main theoretician of liberation theology; Camilo Torres, the Mexican revolutionary priest of the late 1960s; Ernesto Cardenal and other Central American Catholics who were so important in the Nicaraguan revolution — made their way onto Chavez’s reading list.
To a certain extent this was a matter of political convenience. After the brief spring of Catholic liberation theology, the low-level clergy who challenged church hierarchy often got themselves in serious trouble with their religious superiors. Chavez could not afford to be a religious rebel, as he was in the process of building a coalition that included the American Catholic hierarchy. But it was more than convenience. Chavez’s Catholic politics did not wander into the uncharted shores of post–Vatican II thought but instead remained where they had been formed, in Leo XIII’s combination of commitment to social justice, opposition to socialism, and acceptance of hierarchy.
Two years after they met, Father McDonnell passed Chavez on to the second man whom Chavez would later say “radically changed my life,” the community organizer Fred Ross. By then Cesar and his brother Richard had changed their own lives. Anxious to get out of the fields, they had gone with their cousin Manuel to Crescent City, near the California- Oregon border, where they found work as lumberjacks. No one liked the cold weather, so soon they and their families were all back in San Jose. Richard went to work as an apprentice carpenter and Cesar got a job in a lumberyard. They were no longer farmworkers.
The sojourn in Crescent City did not diminish Cesar’s interest in Father McDonnell. Back in San Jose, Chavez continued to visit McDonnell and help him with his work. When Fred Ross came to town to set up a voter registration campaign among Mexican Americans under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee, Ross asked McDonnell, the local Spanish- speaking priest, if he knew anyone who might be interested in working on such a project. McDonnell suggested Chavez. Ross had to be persistent, as Chavez was suspicious of the white organizer and tried to duck him. But Ross finally worked his way into the Chavez household, and Cesar’s confidence.
For the next ten years, Ross would be Chavez’s immediate supervisor, the man who would train him to be a professional organizer and who would be the principal architect of the Community Service Organization (CSO) for which they both worked. Some of those who met Cesar Chavez after his apprenticeship with Ross never appreciated the extent to which Chavez remained a lay Catholic leader. They admired his shrewd, plainspoken, yet sophisticated understanding of political power and his single-minded drive to achieve it. They could see the political purpose of all the religious imagery he would employ but not the religious conviction behind it. They figured that Chavez’s Catholicism was little more than another tool in building the union. That was a large misunderstanding. In the tradition of Catholic Social Action there is little contradiction between a full engagement in the game of politics and a deep sense of religious faith. The good Christian can be, in the ancient counsel of St. Matthew that was Chavez’s favorite biblical citation, “as wise as the serpent and as gentle as the dove.” Chavez was precisely that, serpent and dove. Ultimately he worked out the contradictions that do exist between piety and politics in his own unique, dramatic way, but only after a long series of secular political battles. He was taught how to wage those battles by Fred Ross and by Ross’s boss in the CSO years, a man who was a master at bringing religious people into the world of power politics, the political wizard, Saul Alinsky.