Like others, I suspect, Cesar Chavez is a name I seem to have always known, but his is a life I knew little about. I knew about grapes, farmworkers – that might be about it.
Pawel’s book filled in many gaps. She manages to corral what is anything but a linear story and make it comprehensible to a reader who is removed by time, distance and culture. She stays out of the way of her narrative, offering no explicit judgments – just a story well-told.
The book, as good books so often do, raised as many questions as it answered. What is charisma? What gap did Chavez fill and why did he continue to fill it even when his attention strayed from his beginnings? How does an organization, so dependent on the charisma and abilities of one person, grow over time and distance? There are those groups that challenge the notion that we need such leaders today. (I was struck, though, by Naomi Klein’s criticism of the Occupy movement’s reluctance to have leaders. She pretty much argues in her book This Changes Everything that they’ll need to get over that idea.)
Pawel shows us Chavez’s greatness and, without malice (unlike many today), shows us his flaws. I think her last image serves as her own judgment, a kind of recognition for a flawed life and an amazing man. On balance, one interview subject offers, there was more good to Chavez than bad. And I think that’s true, and I’m okay with that. I still admire the man.
The issues he took on were incredibly complex and historically bound. When you are the first to try something, there is no road map to follow, and Chavez never had that advisor whose “no” he would hear and honor. And he still did remarkable things. What and who is next?