Time is catching up with the founders of the United Farm Workers Union (www.ufw.org). Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) has been dead for 27 years. Rev. Jim Drake (1938-2001) died young. Larry Itliong (1913-1977), who started the famous Delano Grape Strike and National Boycott of September 1965, is gone. Marion Moses (1936-2020), who founded the UFW health care system, died last month. Dolores Huerta is now 90 and Rev. Chris Hartmire is in his late 80s. So too is LeRoy Chatfield.
Chatfield was the administrative assistant to Chavez during the ten crucial years of the UFW. He gives us two recent gifts: The definitive Farm Worker Documentation Project (www.libraries.ucsd.edu/farmworkermovement/archives) and a memoir, To Serve the People: My Life Organizing with Cesar Chavez and the Poor (University of New Mexico ; $27.95).
Chatfield did everything. He walked the first picket line, tended to Chavez during his 25-day fast, was part of the march to Sacramento, managed the operation when Chavez was on the road a month at a time, raised money and spoke at colleges, organized a major legislative labor campaign in California, represented the UFW at the funeral of Robert Kennedy (1925-1968)–all of this after Chavez took on the 31-year old Chatfield to develop farm worker cooperatives, which he also did. Chatfield was on the scene prior to the Delano Grape Strike and played a key role in it. His chapter about it is the best in To Serve the People.
Prior to these defining ten years, Chatfield was for 16 years a member of Christian Brothers of De La Salle (www.delasalle.org). Peter Maurin (1877-1949), a founder of Catholic Worker Movement (www.catholicworker.org), once belonged to the same order, Chatfield reminds us. All through the book he refers to his connections with the Catholic Worker.
He served as a teacher and administrator at Christian Brothers’ schools in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Bakersfield. His social formation occurred as a Christian Brother—sometimes by way of the community, sometimes in spite of it. For example, a Christian Brother recruited Chatfield, then aspiring to the order as high school student, for a cell of a specialized Catholic Action. He was intrigued by social doctrine, though he didn’t understand much of it. However, he memorized and experimented with the Catholic Action method. “I tell you that nothing in my life since age 14 has served me better or landed me in more hot water than those damn principles of observe, judge, act,” he writes.
Just as often Chatfield’s social formation came through his own involvements with student groups and Catholic organizations, including a Catholic Worker house in Oakland and a relationship with Ammon Hennacy (1893-1970). The tale of how he found Chavez indirectly includes the Catholic Worker. At age 29 Chatfield (then known as Bro. Gilbert, FSC) went to Boston to participate at the annual convention of National Catholic Social Action Conference. NCSAC was founded by former Catholic Workers John Cort (1913-2006) and Ed Marciniak (1917-2004). At the Boston conference Chatfield heard “that a man by the name of Cesar Chavez was organizing farm workers in Delano, California.” That was enough for Chatfield.
In this memoir Chatfield expresses affection for all the people and groups he met. There is no bitterness. He left the Christian Brothers only because he wanted full-time involvement with farm workers and presumably the order was unprepared to assign him to that mission. He likewise left the UFW with abiding affection.
“For nearly ten years, Cesar was my best friend,” says Chatfield. They talked over family matters, their faith, sports, politics and lots more. This autobiography is not in any way a tell-all. But in details here-and-there it gives a glimpse into the tragic flaw of the heroic Chavez. A full picture comes through in the sympathetic biography, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Mirian Pawel (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Chatfield came to Chavez out of general desire to help farm workers. Chavez left his job with Community Service Organization out of the same general desire. Chatfield calls this “Cesar’s vision.” There was no clarity, however, about the precise purpose of Chavez’ movement. It was part union focused on gaining collective bargaining status, part social service agency, public relations lobby on behalf of farm workers, and a retreat-style spiritual community. Chavez was the only one who controlled the game plan. Thus there was arbitrariness about his leadership. It was a vision; something that Chavez did not or could not share in bullet point memo.
As the months went by Chatfield got the message that he would be a fall guy for a defeat during a legislative campaign. There was no showdown; Chatfield simply knew it was time to go. Plus he and his wife Bonnie, whom he met in the movement, had four daughters; a fifth was born subsequently.
The second part of the book is equally interesting. Again, the Catholic Worker is part of the story. By 1974 Chatfield was a manager in Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign and went on to serve in the administration, including as director of California Conservation Corps. He then spent five years in real estate development and two more years back in school. Meanwhile, Catholic Workers Dan Delany (1935-2015) and Chris Delany were busy founding a comprehensive house for the unemployed and homeless, Loaves and Fishes (www.sacloaves.org). They hired Chatfield to be its first director. His chapters on these 13 years contain interesting reflections on addiction and on possessions plus a list of tips for managers of non-profits.
Upon retirement Chatfield, wouldn’t you know, returned as a Loaves and Fishes volunteer, developing cottages for the homeless. During retirement Chatfield also returned to producing a journal for high school authors, (www.syndicjournal.us). On Chatfield’s own website, (www.leroychatfield.us), many of his Easy Essays are posted.
Jorge Mariscal put this autobiography together. Its references are up to the minute, but sections of the book are reconstructed from interviews in 1976, from notes in 2002, from several segments written in 2004 and from Chatfield’s diary entries in 1961, 1968-1969 and 1993. There’s a little repetition, but it is not distracting.
Social change movements and their leaders are diminished when they become part of our celebrity culture. True social change requires many energetic and reflective people, most of whom never appear in the news. Chatfield’s account and others like it are an important contribution to understanding how change occurs. Today’s activists are wise to learn from the past; from its positives and negatives.
Droel edits a print newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).