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‘An American Leader -- Cesar E. Chavez’



A viewer looks at a Victor Alemán photograph of Cesar E. Chavez

photos by -- Ted Parks

“An organizer’s job is to help ordinary people do extraordinary things.”

Quoting her grandfather Cesar Chavez, Cristina Chavez Delgado was addressing an audience at the Los Angeles Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture in late March during a reception for “An American Leader -- Cesar E. Chavez.” The exhibit of photographs, memorabilia and paintings documents Chavez’s United Farm Workers movement.

The show befits Chavez’s own extraordinary struggle, according to curator Kent Kirkton, professor of journalism and director of the Center for Photojournalism and Visual History at California State University Northridge.

“This … is the first time that a major museum has mounted a major exhibition focusing on Chavez and the farm workers,” Kirkton said. The show “brings together the work of six exceptional photographers who were dedicated to the cause and to telling the story of rights denied and the struggle to regain them,” he added.

Spanning 1966 to 1993, the pictures convey familiar images from the farm workers’ campaign. Among the pictures are meetings at union headquarters in Delano, Calif.; Chavez in front of a Safeway supermarket; marchers making the trek from Delano to Sacramento; and union pickets silhouetted against the California dawn.

Several photographs reveal a tight connection between the church and the fight for justice.


Photographer Victor Alemán with one of his photographs

In Víctor Alemán’s “Supporters blessing Cesar during his fast, La Paz,” a color image from 1988, three women pray for Chavez. In this study of contrasting expressions, the woman behind the leader and to the right cries out imploringly. The middle woman, her right hand on Chavez’s shoulder, closes her eyes and parts her lips. On the left, the third petitioner bows slightly, eyes open.

The trio’s response was spontaneous, Alemán explained, the women approaching Chavez after Mass on the second day of a protest fast. “He just closed his eyes and got involved in the spirituality of it,” said Alemán.

Editor of the United Farm Workers’ newspaper El Malcriado in the early 1960s, Alemán went on to manage Radio Campesina, which he identified as the first radio station specifically for farm workers. For the last nine years, Alemán has edited Vida Nueva, a Spanish-language weekly published by the Los Angeles archdiocese.

Another of Alemán’s images also suggests Chavez’s devotion, though more subtly. Undated, the large black and white image has Chavez seated, a jacket draped over his shoulder, his upper body leaning forward, his profiled head bowed.

The drama comes from a child looking hauntingly at the camera from middle of the photograph. Her slight body leans into Chavez’s from the opposite direction, her head resting on his leg, her mouth obscured behind Chavez’s gently curved hand that returns her embrace. The little girl’s frightened eyes contrast with Chavez’s sloping form, his concentration intense but not too strong to sense the child’s emotion.

Alemán identified the little girl as one of Chavez’s grandchildren, and said he took the photograph during Mass.

“There was always a Mass before we marched,” Alemán said. He added, Chavez “was a very religious man.”

Some of the most striking photographs in the show are by John Kouns, who showed up at the United Farm Workers’ headquarters in January 1966 to do “some picket duty and some photography,” according to the exhibition guide. Kouns studied at the New York Institute of Photography, where he met famous photojournalist Eugene Smith.

In one of Kouns’ black and white images, a nun carries a United Farm Workers flag, the banner’s horizontal lines intersecting her perpendicular black habit textured by the California sun. In the image beside it, Kouns uses a sharply vertical camera angle to look straight down on a group from the Delano to Sacramento march of 1966.

Echoing the daring perspectives associated with Soviet photographer Alexander Rodchenko, the steep angle imbues the group of marchers with determination and also creates a visual pun. The marchers bear flags -- first the flag of the United States, then what appears to be the flag of Mexico, then what seem to be United Farm Worker banners.

The angle puts two marchers astride the word Right painted into the street’s traffic directions. Could we take this as a visual affirmation of the rightness of “La Causa” - or the union symbolically vanquishing any opposition from right-wingers?

Besides Alvarez and Kouns, the show includes photographs by Oscar Castillo, Emmon Maika’aloa Clarke, George Rodriguez and Jocelyn Sherman. Like Alemán, Clarke worked for the United Farm Workers’ El Malcriado, which he served as photographer in 1967. Sherman started working for the union in 1989 and is currently its public affairs manager.

While the bulk of the exhibition is photography, the show includes other media. Especially noteworthy is a large canvas by Carlos Almaraz, “Cesar Chavez talking with farm workers,” dated 1972 and echoing the social themes and style of the Mexican muralists.

The value of the Chavez exhibit goes beyond its important documentation of the farm workers movement. As curator Kirkton put it, the six photographers “offer a sense of a struggle and a man who was committed to helping people find their place in this world, to ending a particular injustice, and to doing that peacefully.”

“An American Leader--Cesar Chavez” continues through Aug. 18 in Los Angeles before traveling to the Chicano Museum in Phoenix, Ariz.

Ted Parks writes from Malibu, Calif. He may be reached at tparks5560@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000