Serving Cesar Chavez: ‘One of the Greatest Leaders of All Time’

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press Cesar Chavez talks to striking Salinas Valley farm workers at a rally in 1979.

In 1970, I started in the Ph.D. program in Communication Research at Stanford University.

I was in a class of 17—it was about the smartest group of people I have ever been around. All 17 finished the first year, 16 took the week-long test, and one did not. Some 15 of the 16 who took the test passed it.

It was grueling. I worked on that test about 90 hours from Monday morning to Monday morning. I was one of the 15 invited back for the next year. One guy was not invited back; I still don’t know why. He went back to his job, and a couple of years later started another Ph.D. program at USC or UCLA and passed. Thirty years later I learned that he was the Dean of Students at California State University Los Angeles. He has retired now and I cannot find him. I wonder if the people at his second attempt knew about his earlier failed attempt at Stanford. I doubt they did. He and his wife were the only couple my wife Antonia and I invited over to our house for dinner that first year.

The department had been founded by two of the grand old men of communication research. Nathan Maccoby got his doctorate shortly after World War II ended. He got drafted as a private in the war. He served practically the whole war doing research on things like how to get housewives to buy the least popular cuts of meat (the liver, the heart, and the lungs) so the good cuts could go to the GI recruits overseas fighting the war.

His colleague, Wilbur Schramm, had his doctorate when the war started. He joined the Office of War Information in 1941 and spent most of the war studying the effects of propaganda on soldiers and civilians. Bill Rivers, Don Roberts, Everett Parker, Henry Breitrose, William Paisley, and Everett Rogers were some of the young geniuses who joined the department later.

We were a mixed group. There were 10 white males, one Indian, three Chicanos, one gay guy, and two Black guys. Nine of the white males passed, and the gay guy did not take the test.

The one who took it and flunked was Chicano, the one who used to come to our house to eat dinner.

That summer, one of my contacts gave us a series of grants to evaluate the operation of a radio station in Bakersfield, California. The station, KWAC, was the only Spanish language station in the area. It was owned by two white guys, absentee landlords, from Colorado. When Cesar Chavez, the leader of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) asked for a Public Service Announcement (PSA) to announce a meeting of the Committee, they turned him down. Not only that, but they would not let him even buy an ad to tell about the UFWOC meetings.

The owners of the farms and grape orchards were determined to freeze Chavez out. (Most people want to pronounce his name as “Cee-zer Chavez.” In fact, it is “Ceh-Zarr Chah-vez” with a trill on the R at the end of his first name.)

The leaders of the Bakersfield community were dubbed “Oklahoma West.” It was a very racist town, with special disdain for Mexican farm workers. The singer Buck Owners was one of the leaders. He owned commercial real estate, apartment buildings, a radio station, and a TV station. Buck was one of the people who picked the mayors. He would never have wasted his time being the mayor. But it was the people who picked the mayor who were the real leaders of the community. And they could not stand Mexicans, especially Mexicans who were impertinent enough to ask for fairness and non-racist treatment.

Our radical priest student, Anthony (Tony) Meyer, had made contact with Cesar and his strong henchman, Ms. Dolores Huerta. The local Community Service Organization (CSO), which lent us office space, let us know that Dolores was the only person Cesar could count on. She is still there, fighting the good fight for adequate wages for poor migrant farm workers, for freedom from being sprayed by the poisons the farmers put on their crops, adequate and decent housing, and safety in the fields. She visited Albuquerque a few months ago, but she was gone before I heard about her visit on the news. I admire her greatly.

library.ucsb.edu Dolores Huerta at the end of Cesar Chavez’s 36-day Fast for Life on August 21, 1988.

Three of us graduate students did the work on the radio projects. I was the designer of the community survey, my first experience doing research. Tony Meyer and our only foreign student, Osvaldo Kreimer, did the work on the leadership survey. Tony and the CSO director collected the tapes for the analysis of the station’s performance.

My job was to round up the money to pay for the three projects we carried out. Luckily I had met a man named William H. (“Ping”) Ferry who had designated me as his Indian contact. Ping represented the DJB Foundation, the Sunshine Foundation, and the Kit Tremaine Foundation. He would only fund radical projects. We got money from Ping for the occupation by the Pit River Indians of some of their traditional lands that had been taken by the federal government illegally. We got money for the Elem Pomos to occupy and control a sacred burial site of the tribe on Rattlesnake Island in Clear Lake.

We got a grant to fund a criminal attorney for the American Indian Movement in Saint Paul and Minneapolis. They had never been able to have such a position funded, since all the federal poverty law money had to be for civil actions.

We got a grant to fund a criminal lawyer for California Indian Legal Services (CILS), the Indian poverty law firm for California. George Duke ran the firm, with Lee Sclar as one of the attorneys. The federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) money could not be used for criminal work. And there was plenty of need for a criminal lawyer for Indians in California. CILS had also launched the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) in 1970.

We got Ping and a colleague to fund the three radio projects in Bakersfield and Delano. Jane Goodman of the Episcopal Church funded one of the projects, and Ping funded the other two. They were a study of radio listening behavior in the Hispanic community, a study of the Hispanic leadership and their reactions to the radio situation, and an analysis of the actual performance of the radio station measured against what it promised the federal government it would do in its FCC license.

My wife Antonia (Toni), who is bilingual in Spanish and English, took on the task of analyzing the actual performance of the radio station. She did the work despite having a new baby in the house, our oldest daughter Cynthia.

We had taped a whole week of broadcasting, from six in the morning until midnight, for seven days, and found they were grossly negligent in their performance. They had promised that 12% of the news would be local, for instance, but it was almost all “rip and read” off the Associated Press wire. They had no local reporting at all. The two absentee landlords saw the handwriting on the wall and sold the station rather than try to get another three-year renewal of their license.

Richard Miller, another graduate in our class, and I decided once we had the data in hand that we would do an analysis of the radio listening behavior of the Hispanic people who participated in the community survey. But one of the Hispanic students, Felix Gutierrez, did not want us to do it. He thought it would give the people in power too much knowledge of the Hispanic community. He went into my office and stole all the data. I regret now that I did not contact the Stanford police and press charges.

Felix later worked for the Freedom Forum and taught at Cal State Los Angeles and USC. He had no contact with us, and no authority to steal our data. But he got away with it. He may have resented that he never got invited to participate in the UFWOC project.

Cesar was on a hunger strike when we went down to Bakersfield. He did this several times, which I believe contributed to his early death. He was only 66 years old when he died. I wish he were still with us. He was one of the greatest leaders of all time—not just Hispanic, or in North America, but in the world. I will love and miss him always.

Tony Meyer left Stanford and went to work for the Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C. and I lost touch with him. I had lunch with Dr. Everett Rogers 15 years ago and he told me about Tony. And I lost touch with Osvaldo Kreimer.

I got credit for a first year research project out of the Bakersfield work. We had to do that, plus do a master’s level research project, and finally do a doctoral level research project. For the last, I did a study of the adoption of innovations at four Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools. As you might guess, innovation is not one of their strong suits.

Dr. Dean Chavers has been writing this column for 36 years. He is the founder and chief executive of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native college students. Contact him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com.

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