Q&A with Miriam Pawel
|Why did you call the book “The Union of Their Dreams?”|
I thought the title conveyed two important themes. For many people, particularly farmworkers who labored under very difficult conditions, with no rights, little respect, and no ability to challenge their treatment, the UFW in the 1960s and 70s was truly a dream. The union was both a way to improve their lives in the fields, and also an education and an entrée into all sorts of other worlds outside the fields, like union organizing itself. I also liked the title because of the other interpretation of the phrase – many people from very different walks of life came together in the UFW to work for a common cause, and it was the union of those hopes and dreams that accounted for the movement’s success.
How did you come to write a book about the farm worker movement?
I was working as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, writing about agriculture, when I became curious what had become of the UFW. Like many baby boomers on the East Coast, I grew up during the grape and lettuce boycotts. My reporting for the newspaper focused on the UFW today. But when I discovered how far the union had strayed from its original mission and how little the UFW was doing to help farmworkers, I began to delve into the past to try to explain the present. Ultimately, I became so fascinated by the history and the eclectic cast of characters that I decided to explore those early years in a book. To care about why the union’s disintegration matters, you have to understand its early triumphs and accomplishments.
You chose an unconventional structure, building the book around eight principal characters and switching back and forth between different people in each chapter. Why?
One of the most striking things to me as I talked to people who lived through the UFW’s history was the way each of them saw the story only from his or her perspective. As an omniscient narrator, I could pull back and tell the whole story. But I also wanted to preserve each individual’s point of view, and contrast what they were doing and thinking with what was going on in the rest of the union – what was happening off-stage, so to speak. So I chose a small cast of characters and then wrote scenes where the different protagonists took turns being center stage.
How did you pick the main characters?
I chose people who each had a compelling story, and who together represented the different worlds that came together in the farm worker movement. Each also is an archetype for the religious leaders, students, professionals, activists and farmworkers who made up the union. Because I was writing a character-driven narrative, I also needed people who took me into certain places – from the Salinas fields to the executive board meetings – and whose arcs intersected at certain key points. It was a little like a giant jigsaw puzzle. I also needed people who showed up a lot in documents and tapes, so that there was a strong, contemporaneous record of their actions. And last but not least, they had to be willing to put up with me and my endless questions, from the prosaic to the very personal – How much did you weigh? Were you really strip-searched after the arrest? Where were you when you found out the striker had been killed? What were you thinking when Cesar Chavez suddenly threw a fit about the telephone bill?
What about Cesar Chavez? Why isn’t he one of the main characters?
In many ways, he is the central character. But rather than write a biography of Chavez, which would be a very different book, I wanted to write a narrative of the movement -- the people drawn to it, the ways they changed history, and the ways the history they made changed them. You see Chavez, hear him, and understand his thinking, but the portrait is drawn through his interactions with others and told from their various vantage points.
Why hasn’t the history of the UFW been written earlier?
For a number of reasons. First, people who lived through the movement were reluctant for a long time to talk about things that happened, for fear they might jeopardize a cause they believed in deeply. Second, those committed to the idea of Chavez as a near-saint successfully created a pervasive mythology and discouraged attempts to challenge that official version of history. So to successfully reinterpret Chavez’s legacy and tell the more complex, nuanced story, required a time-consuming commitment to deep research and the cooperation of people who decided that enough time had elapsed – the history should be told as accurately and fully as possible.
Was it hard for the people in the book to tell their stories? What did they think of the book?
Sometimes the process was exhilarating, and sometimes painful. I think that applies to the discussions we had over a period of years, and also to their feelings about reading the book. Most people are often self-conscious reading about themselves, especially about their much, much younger selves. “Who was that person? Did I really do that?” one person said after reading about how she challenged her boss during a confrontation. “And how will I explain that to my children?” Many people had blocked out unpleasant memories; several forgot totally that they were present at crucial meetings – although they speak on the tape. But for the most part, they were ready to come to terms with the past, and as curious as I was to peel back the layers of the golf ball and see how close we could come to the core.
A lot of important things in the history of the UFW aren’t in the book or are barely mentioned. How come?
To write a thoroughly researched, definitive history of the UFW would take many years and many, many pages. I wanted to write a dramatic narrative that told the story of the rise and fall of the movement – not a recitation of every event. To some extent, the characters helped narrow the focus – I went where they went. Even with that lens, I had to make difficult decisions about what to omit. I also was guided by the research; I showcased the strongest material I had and selected scenes I could reconstruct vividly from primary sources.
How did you do the research for the book?
I relied mostly on primary source documents: Tapes, minutes, memos, notes, letters and diaries written at the time. At Chavez’s insistence, boxes and boxes of files and tapes were preserved and sent to a labor library at Wayne State University. The bulk of them had never been written about before. I spent a lot of time not only in library archives, but also in garages and attics. The things people save are that which was important to them -- not necessarily historically significant, but emotionally valuable. Those tell personal stories. Then I spent hours talking to people about the materials I found, to understand the context and to probe how they felt at the time.
Where do quotes and dialogue in the book come from?
All quotes come from tapes and documents that were recorded and written at the time. There is only one scene in the book – a memorial service that I attended – where I used quotes I actually took myself.
Were you ever involved in the UFW? Did you meet Cesar Chavez?
No. I grew up in New York, and I was certainly aware of the UFW and the boycotts, but I was never involved in the movement in any way and never saw Chavez in person.
So what are the lessons of the book for the present?
Readers will find their own lessons in the book and identify with different characters, depending on their own experiences. But overall, the early years of the UFW show how a group of poor, powerless people can overcome tremendous odds to successfully exert power -- win basic rights, higher wages, and recognition. The narrative illustrates in very personal terms how the UFW succeeded -- the role that lawyers and the law can play, for instance, in helping workers win better wages and working conditions. Another set of lessons revolves around the benefits and pitfalls of charismatic leadership. The UFW accomplished what the leaderless immigrants rights movement of 2006, for example, could not – but the tragic disintegration of the union at its time of greatest strength shows the downside of such leadership as well. For people participating in social movements, the UFW story has profound implications about the dangers of blindly following a leader, about not speaking up when you know things are wrong, about going along with actions out of a conviction that the ends justify the means. In the final analysis, speaking up may not change the outcome, but not speaking up is something you have to live with forever. The history shows good people doing bad things, and one over-arching lesson is that heroes are very human and not infallible.