First page



Cesar Chavez founded a labor union, launched a movement, and inspired a generation. He rose from migrant worker to national icon, becoming one of the great leaders of the twentieth century. Two decades after his death, Chavez remains the most significant Latino figure in US history. Yet his life story has been told only in hagiography—until now.

In the first comprehensive biography of Chavez, Miriam Pawel offers a searching yet empathetic portrayal. Chavez emerges here as a visionary whose eyes were fixed on a horizon others often could not even see. He was a brilliant strategist who sometimes stumbled, and a canny, streetwise organizer whose pragmatism was often at odds with his elusive, soaring dreams. Drawing on thousands of documents, hundreds of hours of audiotapes, and scores of interviews, this superbly written life deepens our understanding of one of Chavez’s most salient qualities: his profound humanity.

Pawel traces Chavez’s remarkable rise as he empowered the poor and disenfranchised and led farmworkers to historic victories over the powerful agriculture industry. With compassion and compelling detail, she narrates the equally dramatic later years when Chavez’s charismatic leadership devolved into a cult of personality, with heartbreaking consequences for the union he had built. The Crusades of Cesar Chavez reveals how this most unlikely American hero ignited one of the great social movements of our time – and left a legacy that resonates today from California to the White House.

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“We begin to believe that this is the time for a real movement among farm workers to begin. And people are beginning to talk about the Movement instead of a strike.”
-Cesar Chavez to supporters, October 1965, as the grape strike began



in photograhs

On Writing

About the importance of images and place in writing this book.

Part I: 1927-1962

The early years, from migrant farmworker to community organizer. After his eighth grade graduation (cover photo), Cesar worked fulltime in the fields.

Part II: 1962-1970

From founding convention to contracts. Cover Photo: Founding convention 1962

Part III: 1970 – 1975

Building a union.

Part IV: 1975 – 1978

A landmark law establishing elections in the California fields ushered in a new era -- and pushed Chavez into new directions to preserve the spirit of his movement. Cover photo: The first election.

Part V: 1978-1993

The last years, teaching in classrooms rather than the fields. Cover Photo: Founder’s Day, 1982.
The Author
miriam-small-authorMiriam Pawel is the author of The Union of Their Dreams, widely acclaimed as the most nuanced history of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers. She is a Pulitzer-winning editor who spent twenty-five years working for Newsday and the Los Angeles Times. She was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, and lives in Southern California.

Visit Miriam’s blog, Field Notes. 



“It’s just single-mindedness, just nothing but that . . . I think I was born with it. I mean, I just, when I want to do something, I make up my mind I want to do it. I decide.”

-Cesar Cavez










March 31, 2015 – 92nd Street Y, NYC – noon – link here

more spring events TBA


March 25, 2014 – Book launch at the National Steinbeck Center, Salinas – 5:30 PM, reception; 6 PM, Miriam Pawel in conversation with Eric Brazil – link here

April 1, 2014 – Los Angeles Public Library, 7:15 PM, ALOUD panel with Luis Valdez – link here

April 4, 2014 – Texas Union, University of Texas, Austin, 12 PM: “Cesar Chavez, the man, the myths, and the legacy.” – link here

April 5, 2014 – San Antonio Book Festival – Central Library, 11 AM, In conversation with Gregg Barrios. link here

April 8, 2014 – Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, AZ, 7 PM – link here

April 9, 2014 – UC Irvine, Humanities Gateway Building, Room 103 – 5:30 PM – link here

April 12, 2014 – Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, on the campus of USC – link to full schedule
10:30 AM – In conversation with Steve Lopez and Eliseo Medina, Bovard Auditorium
12:30 PM – Panel on biography, Hancock Foundation room

April 17, 2014 – Politics & Prose, Washington DC, 7 PM – link here

April 22, 2014 – Powell’s Books, Portland, 7:30 PM – link here

April 24, 2014 – University Bookstore, Seattle, 7 PM – link here

April 26, 2014 – San Francisco Public Library, 4:30 PM – link here

May 6, 2014 – Burbank Library – link here

May 7, 2014 – UC Center, Sacramento, noon – link here

May 28, 2014 – Glendale Library – link here
Sept. 16, 2014 – Santa Monica Community College – 11:15 AM – link here

Sept. 18, 2014 – Pacoima Library, 6:30 PM – link here

Oct. 7, 2014 – Newberry Library, Chicago, 6 PM – link here

Oct. 8, 2014 – Northwestern University, Hagstrum Room, University Hall 201, Noon

Oct. 9, 2014 – University of Illinois at Chicago, UIC Latino Culture Center, Lecture Center B2, 1 PM

Oct. 14, 2014 – Pomona College, Rose Hills Theater, Smith Campus Center, 11 AM

Oct. 25-26, 2014 – Texas Book Festival, Austin

Nov. 7, 2014 – Commonwealth Club of California, Noon – link here



“Cesar Chavez … has literally averaged five to six hours of sleep a night for the past 11 months! With it has gone all of his sympathies and a life long desire to organize the ‘ones below the bottom,’ the ever-shifting, fearful masses of ‘unorganizables,’ the field workers from whose ranks he came and whose misery he has never been able to forget.”
-Fred Ross about Chavez’s first experience organizing farmworkers in Oxnard, 1959





The Crusades of Cesar Chavez
Reviews & Praise

  • The New York Times Book Review: April 27, 2014

    “Engrossing . . . There is so much brilliant political theater in this book that it’s easy to see why Chavez is still the most celebrated Latino leader in American history.”

  • The New Yorker: April 14, 2014

    “[Chavez] often found himself on the wrong side of a decision. In The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, a provocative new biography, Miriam Pawel reassesses Chavez’s legacy under a raking light. For years, the foundational account of Chavez’s work was an as-told-to narrative by Jacques E. Levy, a deeply embedded writer who just as deeply admired the cause. Pawel, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, offers a corrective to that starry-eyed project. Her previous book, “The Union of Their Dreams” (2009), explored the United Farm Workers by focussing on its seconds-in-command. After speaking with those who helped build the union, Pawel had a critical read on many of Chavez’s moves. Now she takes on the giant himself. The Crusades of Cesar Chavez combines fresh reporting with spot-checking of Chavez’s memories, as gathered by writers such as Levy, and the result helps flesh out Chavez as more than a transcendent moral hero. As he once put it, ‘There is a big difference between being a saint and being an angel.’”

  • Los Angeles Times: March 23, 2014

    “Honest, exhaustively researched … “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” is a biography for readers who find real human beings more compelling than icons and history more relevant than fantasy.”

  • The Economist: April 5, 2014

    “Miriam Pawel’s detailed biography …will become the definitive life.”

  • Sacramento Bee: March 23, 2014

    “The first comprehensive biography of the spectacular rise and messy decline of the United Farm Workers union and the man who struck the sparks that made the epic American social movement.”

  • Starred Review in Library Journal: Feb. 2014

    “The author’s insightful, painstakingly researched, and thoughtful work makes Chavez all the more dimensional and nuanced by recognizing his failings as well as his successes. VERDICT This fully rounded portrait could well be the definitive biography of this all too human figure. It is also a timely complement to the forthcoming Hollywood biopic, Cesar Chavez: An American Hero.”

  • Starred review in Booklist: March 2014

    “Pawel, rigorous and captivating, follows her history of Cesar Chavez’s crusade to protect farm workers’ rights, The Union of Their Dreams, with a zestful, dramatic, and redefining biography of the innovative, daring, and persevering activist…Pawel thoroughly chronicles every aspect of Chavez’s battles against California’s politically dominant produce growers, from audacious strikes to the now legendary national grape boycott to his penitential fasts. As she insightfully dissects Chavez’s troubled relationships with his inner circle and each phase in the rise and fall of his increasingly complex and mismanaged organization, Pawel portrays a visionary civil rights leader whose fame and near-beatification engendered tragic misuses of power, but who improved countless lives and raised global consciousness. Chavez’s epic story, told so astutely and passionately by Pawel, is essential to understanding today’s struggles for justice and equality.”

  • Los Angeles Magazine: March 26, 2014

    “Powerful and captivating, this first comprehensive biography of Latino rights leader Cesar Chavez traces the story of a man from migrant worker to union leader to icon. Though a historical figurehead, this book doesn’t shy away from Chavez’s moral blemishes, but paints him as a man of deep humanity…The Crusades of Cesar Chavez is an honest, well-rounded look at one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders.”

  • Cardinal Roger Mahony: March 31, 2014

    “The most comprehensive and accurate book on the life and work of Cesar Chavez …The book highlights the complexity of Cesar Chavez as a person…If you are interested in obtaining one of the best books on Cesar Chavez, this is the one”

  • Labor Notes: April 14, 2014

    “Miriam Pawel offers the most comprehensive look at Chavez and his movement … Pawel already broke new ground on Chavez and the UFW in her previous book, The Union of Their Dreams (2009), a study of key figures in the union’s 40-year struggle. In The Crusades, Pawel offers a smooth, well-written, and well-researched narrative of Chavez’s life.”

  • The Rivard Report: April 5, 2014

    “An unflinching characterization of one of recent history’s more storied civil rights leaders. In a nine year effort to write “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” Pawel sources troves of archives, personal writings, and interviews more than 70 individuals to piece together a portrait of a man who was both monumentally inspiring and deeply flawed. Cesar Chavez was a man who was ultimately human.”

  • Jorge Ramos, Reforma: March 22, 2014

    “No recomiendo muchas cosas, pero hay que ver la película sobre Chávez y leerse la extraordinaria y minuciosa biografía que acaba de publicar Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez. Son dos maravillosas miradas hacia atrás pero, también, una hoja de ruta.”

  • Gustavo Arellano, Ask a Mexican: March 31, 2014

    “Miriam Pawel’s extraordinary The Crusades of César Chávez: A Biography … finds Chávez not as the saint that keepers of his flame want him remembered as but as an all-too-human man—one of the few thorough biographies to not come off as hagiography.”

  • Publishers Weekly: Feb. 2014

    “Pawel’s clear, accessible prose befits a subject famous for his plain rhetoric, ensuring a broad readership can appreciate this valuable exploration of Chavez’s unique legacy.”

  • Jon Lee Anderson: author of “The Fall of Baghdad” & “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life”

    “A vivid narrative that is unmatched for the authenticity of its behind-the-scenes detail. That rarest of beasts, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez is at once an important historical document, and a compelling read.”

  • Kurt Andersen: author of “True Believers”

    “The definitive account: A lucid, thoughtful, evocative, deeply reported, bracingly honest account of the life of one of our most consequential modern agents of change.”


Author Talks


Radio, TV & Feature Stories


Praise for “The Union of Their Dreams”…

  • Caitlin Flanagan: The Atlantic

    “One of the most important recent books on California history.”

  • David G. Gutiérrez: University of California, San Diego

    “This incisive and sensitive study makes a major contribution to our understanding of Cesar Chavez and the poor people’s movement he led.”

Fast Page

“Chavez set out to form a labor union for the poorest, most powerless workers in the country, excluded from protection under virtually every relevant health and labor law … Chavez had no illusions about his task. His goal was to radically reshape the largest, most powerful industry in California, a $3 billion a year business whose leaders sat on the boards of banks and in the chambers of county and state legislatures.”
-The Crusades of Cesar Chavez

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    • ♦ Ernesto Galarza, an early farmworker organizer, wrote several books crusading against the bracero guest worker program that began during World War II and continued until 1964, including “Merchants of Labor” and “Spiders in the House.”

    • ♦ Two books written early in the grape strike captured the heady days of the late 1960s: “Sal Si Puedes,” by Peter Matthiessen, and “Delano,” by John Gregory Dunne.

    • ♦ Ron Taylor, who covered the early years of the UFW for the Fresno Bee, put his expertise to use in “Chavez and the Farmworkers,” published in 1975.

    • ♦ “Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa,” by Jacques Levy, published the same year, is the closest thing to an authorized biography of Chavez and the early years of the union.

  • ♦ Four recent books have looked back at the early decades of the UFW from different perspectives: “Sometimes David Wins,” by Marshall Ganz, a lead organizer with the union in its early years; “Trampling out the Vintage,” by Frank Bardacke, who worked in the fields, “From the Jaws of Victory,” by Matt Garcia, a professor at Arizona State University, and “An Organizer’s Tale,” edited by Amherst professor and author Ilan Stavans, is a collection of Chavez’s speeches.


    • ♦ The Farmworker Documentation Project, published by former top Chavez aide LeRoy Chatfield, contains a wealth of historical documents, photographs, newspaper clippings, out-of-print books, and accounts by volunteers who worked for the UFW. Included is an extensive collection of “El Malcriado,” the newpaper published by the union staff at various times.

    • ♦ The California Department of Education maintains a research site, established by law in conjunction Cesar Chavez Day, which includes a selection of digitized archival documents and images, most from the archives at Wayne State.

    • ♦ The California Agricultural Labor Relations Board maintains a website that has information about the landmark law and links to decisions dating back to 1975 when the agency began to regulate elections in the fields.

    • ♦ The University of California, Davis has digitized copies of many old UFW contracts, as far back as the 1967 DiGiorgio agreement.

    • ♦ The University of California, Santa Cruz has posted more than 100 videos of the Teatro Campesino performing.


    • ♦ The Walter P. Reuther Labor Library at Wayne State University in Detroit is the official repository for the UFW archives. The extensive collections include papers of the union as well as key individual such as Marshall Ganz, LeRoy Chatfield, and Philip Vera Cruz. The collections also include extensive audio-visual material.

    • ♦ The Special Collections library at Stanford University houses the papers of Fred Ross Sr., as well as various collections related to Chicano history and the farm worker movement, such as Ernesto Galarza, and the photographic archive of Bob Fitch.

    • ♦ The collection of Jacques E. Levy, who recorded and transcribed hundreds of hours of interviews with Chavez, his family, and other key figures, is at Beinecke Library at Yale University.

    • ♦ The Beinecke also recently acquired the photographs of Jon Lewis, who chronicled the movement’s early years.


    • ♦ The Walter P. Reuther Labor Library archives at Wayne State University, with thousands of images taken by many of the brilliant photographers who spent time documenting the farm worker movement, were the primary source for images in the “Story” boxes on this website. The library has digitized a selection of its photos, which can be seen here.

    • ♦ The extensive archives of Jon Lewis are at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. Many of Lewis’ images can be seen on the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project and in a forthcoming book by Richard Steven Street.

    • ♦ The archives of photographer Bob Fitch, whose portrait graces the cover of “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” have recently been acquired by Stanford University.

    • ♦ Cathy Murphy was another of the talented photographers who worked for several years as the movement’s official photographer and whose images appear in most books and films about Chavez. Her work can be seen on her website.


Contact Information


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end page

“Chavez’s place in history is secure; the route he traveled from migrant worker to national icon has yet to be explored. The path has become well worn, so strewn with flowers and encomiums that reality lies half buried beneath the legends. Chavez nurtured those legends—yet he also took pains to ensure that each footprint might one day be unearthed. In thousands of papers and hundreds of tape recordings that he carefully preserved rest the intimate details of his remarkable journey.”
– “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez”