The Last Time I Saw César
César Chávez died on April 23, 1993. He was alone, book in hand, resting in a house near his childhood adobe outside of San Luis, Arizona. Most of us who knew him believe that he was worn-out by his many death-defying fasts and non-stop schedule. Two days on the witness stand at the end of a long, drawn-out legal battle with Salinas Valley lettuce grower Bruce Church Co. may have pushed him too far.
When Chávez died, his hopes, dreams, and aspirations did not die with him. These continue in the United Farm Workers Union (UFW), and among campesinos and campesinas, and thousands of supporters inside and outside of agriculture, in California, in Mexico, and across the United States. So great was the shock and genuine outpouring of grief that his funeral six days later became the greatest media event in UFW and farmworker history. Every photographer who had ever covered the union, and many more who had not, packed into Delano, California the day before the funeral.
The sun was topping the Sierra Nevada when I arrived at Forty Acres. For several hours I kept busy watching people assemble along the two-lane highway that would convey the funeral procession across town. Grammar school children stood outside their classrooms, waiting with their teachers and displaying long paper banners with messages written in crayon. Families spread blankets in the grass and opened umbrellas. Vans arrived, disgorged “originales”– field hands who had participated in strikes, and boycotts. Police cars patrolled the parks. Traffic cops kept busy on the side streets. Airplanes circled. News helicopters hovered. Satellite trucks with their generators making a disrespectful racket packed a dusty parking lot. With all of their antennas extended and pointed skyward, they formed a kind of surreal media encampment ready to beam the event worldwide.
I tuned my Sony Walkman to Radio Bilingue. Samuel Orozco was covering the event. Listening to him alternating between English and Spanish, I sensed a kind of Chicano version of Edward R. Murrow. Orozco was pouring his soul into a broadcast. His deep and distinctive voice transported me back six years, to a peach orchard near Del Rey, where we had walked past rent-a-cops to interview striking workers. Every so often his voice would crack with emotion and he would have to pause and gather himself.
Around mid-morning, I spotted glowing spots of color on the horizon several miles to the east. Looking through my 300 millimeter telephoto lens, I watched the spots of color grow into union banners and flags waiving, filling, and inflating in the light breeze. Over the next fifteen minutes, the sea of banners and flags grew into a procession filling several miles of the east-west highway.
Union members later claimed 30,000 mourners paraded that day. Grower publications put the number at less than 10,000. Whatever the exact figure, it was largest funeral procession in California history. How strange, I thought, that the people around me hardly seemed to be attending a funeral. They smiled and held hands and whistled to one another. Some wore dark suits, others jeans and white T-shirts. Old friends waived and greeted one another with shouts of “Ola, ola!” A tourist stumbling into the scene might easily have mistaken it for early arrivals at a harvest festival.
While recording the event, I asked the same questions that I had repeated on countless photographic assignments over the previous twenty years. Out on the flat landscape of the Central Valley, photographers like Carleton E. Watkins had packed their images with additional meaning by resorting to an elevated perspective. I was going to follow their example and pack in some additional punch with something Dorothea Lange and other iconic photographers of the state’s farmworkers had not used: a telephoto lens.
Looking for platforms, I eliminated several nearby pickup trucks, then briefly considered climbing on top of a bus. I even considered using several trees and one very inviting telephone pole. I had used them all, at one time or another. I was thinking about Otto Hagel’s photograph of Horace Bristol sitting atop a telephone pole at the 1936 strike of lettuce packers in the Salinas Valley when I spotted an alfalfa loader parked alongside the road near the entrance to Forty Acres. The roof of the cab was fifteen feet above the road and offered a good vantage point. By climbing into the alfalfa loading bucket, I could add another ten feet and achieve a kind of hovering perspective. The Mexican-American owner/operator knew exactly what I wanted. He pointed to the bucket and said “get in.”He had taken the day off and parked his machine there hoping to help photographers get their shots, further evidence of just how deeply photographic consciousness had worked itself into the farmworker community.
As I scrambled from the cab into the bucket, several other photographers noticed me and tagged along. Mexican photographer Lydia Nieto del Rio was right behind. As she struggled up, I gave her a lift, momentarily alarmed to feel my entire hand fitting around her thin arm.
Watching through my 300 millimeter lens, I saw César’s casket round the corner several miles away. Dozens of politicians, actors, and union members took turns as pall bearers. A flatbed truck loaded with photographers and camera crews preceded the casket. Even more photographers walked alongside.
Over the next half-hour, I watched photographers maneuvering for shots of Jesse Jackson, Edward James Olmos, Willie Brown, Jerry Brown, Martin Sheen, the Kennedy clan, and others. Every time photographers got close, UFW guards shooed them away. One especially persistent paparazzi wearing his baseball cap backwards kept circling the casket, working in close, being chased off, then circling back until he got the shot he wanted.
Thirty years earlier such a gathering could not have assembled in Delano. The police would not have allowed it. Now they were scrambling to make it happen.
As the procession came closer, I began photographing. The casket was easy to find in the sea of marchers. I just looked for an encircling swath of white and red UFW flags.
To the left and slightly behind the coffin was Cardinal Roger Mahoney. Dressed in his magenta religious garments and skull cap, he had a small cross draped across his chest. Nearby were dozens of priests, padres, and rabbis in purple, green, and white vestments. To their right, UFW Vice-President Dolores Huerta wore white. Directly behind her, Richard Chávez walked with Arturo Rodriguez, heir apparent to Chavez, both dressed in while shirts. Beside them were UFW organizer Marshall Ganz, now a professor at Harvard; Marc Grossman, long-time UFW spokesman; Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino; and Leroy Chafield, who had been Chavez’s personal aid for two decades. Everyone wore black armbands and red ribbons. Everyone had some kind of UFW symbol – a gold pin, a button.
As the coffin neared me, I switched to a 43-86 medium telephoto lens and followed the procession. When it passed by, I climbed down and followed the coffin into a small building on Forty Acres. Chávez lay there in the simple pine casket constructed by his brother.
Throughout the day, I greeted one friend after another, including a Los Angeles photographer whom I had just worked with in Haiti. As thousands of union members, friends, and admirers filed past the coffin to pay their last respects, UFW officials periodically escorted photographers in to see the coffin. Under the watchful eye of guards from Delancy Street, photographers received two or three minutes to work. They made essentially the same shot. As an old man lifted his grandchild to his shoulder so that the child could see Chávez, they caught the moment. And so it went. Even in death, Chávez remained photogenic.
Over the next four hours, dozens of photographers and thousands of mourners paid their last respects. Determined not to be rushed, I wanted to take the final and very best picture of César. To do so, I had arrived with battery-powered strobes and soft boxes. I had used the equipment on countless occasions to make color portraits in difficult circumstances ranging from the slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to crack houses in Modesto, California. I decided that the best way to photograph was to wait until the very last moment. After all of the other photographers had finished their work and the last mourners had paid their respects, I would deploy the same lighting equipment I had used while photographing the CEO of a Fortune 500 company – or a Playboy bunny.
As the afternoon wore on, I began to wither in the heat. Forty Acres was packed with people from all over the country so I decided to stroll around to find some water. While listening to a cantollanista singing beautiful songs of the farmworker movement, I encountered Bakersfield Californian photographer Felix Adamo, a familiar sight at strikes and picket lines over the past decade. We both agreed that the afternoon had an odd feeling.
There was a great sense of sadness and loss. Veteran union members were crying. Many were extremely distraught. “Originals” had driven across country to be present. Hispanics from all parts of California had pulled their children out of school, arriving in the middle of the night. A few old veterans, long fed up with Chávez, had forced themselves to attend. They had split with Chávez years before and now, regarding him with disgust, attended the funeral to honor allegiance to la causa, to the farmworker movement. Everyone asked the same question: what would happen to the UFW? Who would step forward to lead the union?
Commercial activity added an odd dimension to the funeral. “It surprised me to see vendors hawking t-shirts, caps, pins, books, flags, and everything else,” Adamo later wrote to me. “I realized the UFW was raising funds for their cause, but it struck me as rather strange. But it was nice to see many of the older people, some of whom had actually marched with César, had come to the funeral to pay their last respects to a man who had made their lives and working conditions better.”
Late in the afternoon, as the line of mourners trickled to an end, I tucked in behind a young campesino in a T-shirt and group of women dressed in black shawls. The young man carried his three-year old boy on his shoulder. The women carried rosary beads and prayed quietly in unison..
I worked very slowly. After setting up my strobe light and surrounding it with a soft box, I made a test flash and took a meter reading. Then I stood somewhat precariously on a folding steel chair. I was trying to look slightly down on César. I wanted to clearly see him in his coffin. Then I waited.
As a historian, I was determined not to miss a chance to record history. As a photographer, I wanted to take the very best photograph possible. As a human being, I wanted to respect the man and the moment. All of these goals were in conflict.
I was working at the edge of my physical limits. Standing on that chair seat was no easy feat. I worried constantly that I might lose my balance or that someone might bump me and I would end up falling onto the coffin and crush some old women and babies in the process. I kept thinking about the photographers present at the funerals of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and how important it was for later generations to have pictures of those events. The only way to accomplish that goal was to work as slowly and quietly as possible.
The Delancy Street guards did not understand what I was doing. Had Dolores Huerta been there, she would have instantly recognized my gringo face from our hundreds of encounters over the years and simply smiled and gone about her business. But I had never seen these guards before and they had no idea that I had been photographing the union since the mid-1970s, was familiar to most union members, and had many adventures to recount, ranging from the time in the Imperial Valley in 1986 when a large, pear-shaped Mario Saikhon Inc. office manager became enraged when I entered his office to photograph fired broccoli workers and tried to throw me through a plate glass window to the moment a year later when Dolores Huerta almost choked to death on a fish bone in Perko’s restaurant in Reedley while I was interviewing her at 2 AM.
To César’s guards, I was probably just some interloper disrespecting the dead to get a good picture. And all that equipment did not endear me to them. When I resisted their efforts to hurry me out, I thought we might get into a tussle. Apparently the balancing act I did on that folding chair put them at ease. For more than twenty minutes I stood there, watching scenes unfold, waiting for each picture to happen, passing up one shot after another. This seemed to prove that I was not out for a cheap shot, that I was not a hit and run photographer.
I watched young couples carrying babies pause before the coffin and talk to their children, somehow trying to impress the moment in the minds of their children. “Con permiso,” I whispered (asking permisson). Our eyes met. They nodded, yes. I photographed a dozen couples following the same ritual. I made my best photograph when a young father took a child from his wife’s arms and raised the baby up just as two abuelitas (grandmothers) recited the Lord’s Prayer. As they made the Sign of the Cross, I pressed the shutter. A minute later the coffin lid was closed. I had taken the final image of César Chávez.
That night I retired to People’s Café for a beer and a round of pool with old chums from the trail. The next day I went over to the huge tent at Forty Acres, where the funeral service was to be held. Arriving early, I watched UFW photographer Victor Alemán setting up a remotely controlled, motor driven camera on a cross bar above the stage where the casket would lay. With a wide angle lens attached, the camera would act like an eye of God, capturing a view of the ceremonies that no photographer elbowing for position at ground level could match.
I had no such access. Nor had I brought along my remote equipment. The funeral service was going to be another hot, sweaty affair, with photographers squirming for position. I walked the grounds and made some mental notes about the best sites. Experience taught me that all of the best vantage points would be taken and that I would have to improvise.
As the funeral service began, hundreds of photographers crowded around the altar. Next to me was KGO-TV’s Rigo Chicon, whom I had last seen and photographed fourteen years earlier during the March on Salinas. Magnum photographer Paul Fusco, whom I had seen on and off at farmworker events for more than a decade, was also present along with George Ballis, the senior most photographer of the farmworker movement. Perhaps the most experienced farmworker movement photographer of all, Ballis understood the demands of working a mass event and sweating it out under the sun, but he was no longer actively photographing the UFW and lacked the media outlets necessary to get his images out to the public. And he was too grief stricken to stand opposite the open coffin of his old friend with sophisticated strobe lighting equipment to get good color pictures. He was there out of pure respect. Although Bob Fitch had photographed farmworker funerals and certainly knew how to maneuver for position, he was no where to be seen.
Many of the photographers present at the funeral were working on deadline. Competing for space opposite world events, they were under great pressure. But there were also those who were there to witness history and show respect by working more or less as historians with cameras. They did so because of the man – the authentic Mexican-American leader inside that plain coffin – and because like everyone they were genuinely moved. They felt that they were witnessing the end of an era, perhaps the death not only of an old man but of a declining movement, a major turning point in the farmworker story. In temperament and outlook they were inclined towards a slower and more personal and artistic view. Covering the funeral with bitter sweet images of grief and solidarity and the union in eclipse, they injected questions about the future into coverage long stuck in the past. Through their work, a pivotal moment in the organizing struggle was fixed and preserved. When they thought back over the experience, they never mentioned the money they made off of their photographs, if they made any at all. No one who photographed over those two days did so with profit in mind.
As priests moved up and down the isles and dignitaries and old friends filed in for the mass, photographers kept up a steady stream of flashes. They illuminated every move, documented every expression, caught every tear, recorded every gesture. When César’s grandchildren placed a UFW eagle and short-handled hoe on the altar, hundreds of strobes followed them. As Dolores Huerta eulogized the man she had worked with over four decades and Luis Valdez announced “you shall never die,” photographers kept clicking away. At the height of the service, when Cardinal Roger Mahony gave his blessing and offered sympathies from the Pope, Alemán used his remote device to trigger the camera he had rigged above the casket. Over the next half hour, photographers continued to record every detail. When mourners lit candles, they crowded around, firing off flashes to compensate for the rapidly diminishing light. And then with nightfall the photographers went their separate ways.
Looking back on their two days at Delano, photographers would romanticize what had been a grind, throw in a few anecdotes to embellish the story, and recall evenings in bars trading shots and replaying tapes of the various songs they had heard. They also recalled a sense of harmony and common purpose when in fact many had been competing for the same shot. But those who had never before covered a farmworker walked through Delano – east to west – every mile from the affluent Anglo section to the barrio near Highway 99. No one who ever made that walk left without some impression of the place where the farmworker movement was born. They ate in the Mexican cafes and sent postcards, describing their experiences to friends, relatives, and colleagues. They purchased union trinkets and stuck them on their camera bags and packed them home. Whatever their previous knowledge and experience, they left Delano with strong memories and images of one of the greatest events in the visual history of the farmworker movement, an event the likes of which had never been seen before, and will never be seen again, in California. But after converging on Delano to take a last single picture of the most famous farmworker in California, photographers did not stop. They would continue, not so much for the union, but for posterity. There was a lot more going on, and a lot more to document.
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