A Bumper Crop of New Books
By Bennett Baumer
July 16, 2013, Issue #188
Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California By Bruce Neuburger, Monthly Review Press, 2013
Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers By Frank Bardacke, Verso, 2011
The Union of Their Dreams By Miriam Pawel, Bloomsbury Press, 2009
When Cesar Chavez died in 1993, he was a cultural icon and progressive hero. Cast into poverty at a young age, he worked the fields as a youth before he went on to fuse his brand of Catholicism and grassroots organizing into the United Farm Workers, a union that sought to raise his Mexican farm laborer base out of poverty and into power. Chavez built a fighting union from the ground up — Si se puede! (“Yes we can!”) was its battle cry — but by the time of his death he left an organization gutted of its farm worker base, purged of its organizing core and tattered from relentless grower assaults.
Over the past few years a crop of books has reassessed the UFW and its leader. Previous works on the UFW tended towards hagiography, but the union is decades removed from being a force in the fields and newer scholarship seeks to understand what happened. Lettuce Wars by Bruce Neuburger is the most recent addition and compliments Trampling Out the Vintage, possibly the definitive work on the UFW.
Both Neuburger and Trampling Out the Vintage author Frank Bardacke come from the ’60s New Left antiwar, civil rights and campus free speech movements. Both also worked multiple years in the vegetable fields, stooped over alongside a largely Latino workforce, and both books contain vignettes of workers and their lives, language and struggles. Where Lettuce Wars is a lively memoir, Trampling Out the Vintage is a densely packed comprehensive history.
Lettuce Wars reads like a troublemaker’s handbook because Neuburger was a rabble-rouser. Neuburger annoyed anti-communist UFW officials by espousing radical politics that harkened to China’s Cultural Revolution. Neuburger was also accused of arson (charges dropped), pursued by Mexican and American police and kicked out of a martyred farm worker’s funeral. (I recently met him; he’s an affable ESL instructor in San Francisco). While Neuburger traces the arc of the UFW competently, he was never close to the union’s core leadership…