I wrote this book for a lot of different audiences. For people who lived through the farm worker movement, the book reveals significant new information and, like the parable of the blind man and the elephant, steps back in order to paint a picture that reconciles multiple points of view. For those interested in labor or Chicano history, the book documents an important and untold chapter of that history. For those interested in the role of law and religion in social activism, the book offers a case study in the successful use of legal tactics and religious support to organize for change. And above all, the book is a very human narrative with thought-provoking lessons for anyone interested in social movements and community organizing.
Here are some questions that might spark discussions that build on those themes and the stories chronicled in “The Union of Their Dreams.”
Book Group Questions
What did you know about Cesar Chavez before you read this book, and how did “The Union of Their Dreams” change your understanding of Chavez and the farm worker movement?
In what ways did the main characters in the book change over time?
Have you ever been part of a social movement or a movement that tried to achieve a major policy change? Were there parts of the book where you recognized situations similar to those you’ve been in?
A lot of the story revolves around charismatic leadership. Who would you identify as charismatic leaders in the book? What characteristics define that kind of leadership? What are the upsides and downsides of a movement built around a charismatic leader?
Which character did you find most interesting and why? What would you ask him or her?
Could events comparable to those described in the book take place today in the 21st century? Which strategies do you think could still succeed and which could not? Could the right leader and the right cause mobilize the sort of mass participation and sacrifice that Chavez and the farmworkers inspired through the boycott? Would people today work for a cause for $10-a-week and room and board?
One of Chavez’s strategies was to be the center of the wheel, while other top leaders formed the spokes. That helped him maintain control, preempted any possible alliances, and made it hard for the others to share information. How do you think that model would fare today? Would the changed world of communication make it more difficult for a leader to maintain that degree of control over information?
How would you define an organizer? Did the book change your view of what organizing is?
Many times in the book people do things they have qualms about but justify their actions for the sake of the greater goal they are working toward. Were those wise decisions? Are there times when the end justifies the means, and if so, how do you decide where to draw the line? Did any actions in the book cross that line?
Do you think most people in the movement were working toward the same goal? If not, how did their goals differ? And did they recognize those differences at the time?
At certain critical junctures, individuals believed they had to go along with the decisions of the union leadership -- even if those actions were troubling -- or they had to leave. Do you think those were the only alternatives? Are there specific points in the story where you think people could have made different decisions? Do you think those choices would have affected the outcome?
Most of the people who worked for the UFW during those years did not talk about their experiences, doubts, frustration, or anger, for decades, fearing it would hurt a cause they still believed in. Was that the right decision? What was the cost?
Do you think a farmworkers union is needed today? What would be necessary to organize a successful union?
Some of the people who lived through this history look at the conditions in the fields today and wonder, what was the point, whether all the time, emotional and physical energy and commitment was wasted. Do you think what they did was worth it?