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Author of Controversial Chavez Book to Speak on Campus

October 22, 2012

The author of a controversial new book offering fresh insight into Cesar Chavez and the labor union he led will speak Oct. 22 at UC Merced.

In “From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement,” author Matthew Garcia calls on research and first-hand accounts to present an unflinching view of Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW).

One of Garcia’s research assistants for the book was UC Merced history Professor Mario Sifuentez, who invited the author to speak on campus.

“The book is very challenging to some of our preconceived ideas of Cesar Chavez,” Sifuentez said.

“From the Jaws of Victory” examines the Chavez legacy and the ups and downs of the UFW. Garcia, director of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, sees Chavez as a tragic hero who sometimes made choices that prevented both he and the union from making greater strides.

The book has drawn both praise and criticism. According to Garcia, the Brown Berets have said he should apologize to Chavez’s family and have launched a boycott of the Los Angeles Times, which published an opinion piece by Garcia last month.

Garcia said some don’t want to see the late labor leader as anything but a saint. But everyone has flaws.

“Chavez was a man who was very complex and prone to human emotions,” he said.

Garcia said he is looking forward to his UC Merced appearance because it is a natural place to discuss Chavez and the UFW.

“It’s important for this history to be talked about in the Central Valley,” Garcia said.

Sifuentez agreed, adding that some UC Merced students have conflicted opinions about Chavez. Those who come from farmworker families often have a more complete view, he said.

In general, much support for Garcia’s book has come from the Central Valley because people here are more willing to acknowledge both Chavez’s successes and failures, Sifuentez said.

“Matt’s book is really sort of about teaching a lesson on organizing,” he said.

Sifuentez and Garcia have known each other for 12 years, first meeting on the University of Oregon campus. Garcia later became Sifuentez’s thesis advisor as he pursued and completed a doctorate in American Civilization at Brown University.

For the book, Sifuentez spent a summer examining the UFW archives held at Wayne State University – mainly listening to many hours of executive board meetings.

Sifuentez is using Garcia’s book in his historian’s craft class, a methodology class for history majors. He also plans to use the book in his spring semester Chicano/a history class.

Research interests for Sifuentez include immigration and labor. He is working on a book about farmworkers and immigration that is focused on the Pacific Northwest.

Sifuentez, who is the son of farmworkers, said the project stems from his personal background.

Garcia’s lecture is scheduled for 3 p.m. in the California Room. Retired UFW co-founder Gilbert Padilla, one of the key voices in the book, also is expected to speak. The lecture is free and open to the public.