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Threatened by fasts, foes, Chavez held his peace.

Few priests knew - or supported - Cesar Chavez as well as San Diego diocesan priest Fr. Victor Salandini, the "tortilla priest." The men spent many years in common struggle.

They prayed together, learned together and went to jail together. Chavez once told the story of being transferred with Salandini to a lockup in San Diego and then being marched out for their first meal together in jail.

"The meal tables were placed in the center of a big communal room which served as the eating center for the jail inmates," Chavez said. "We walked in with Fr. Salandini in the lead.

"Instead of the usual noisy mess room, we entered into a strangely silent room. All the prisoners waited silently standing against the walls. Not a drop of food had been eaten. They waited. ... They had heard that Fr. Salandini, the priest of the workers, was in jail."

Last year Salandini wrote a very personal book about his ministries as a priest. Much of the book focused on the two men's common struggles on behalf of the farm workers. It captures a personal side of Chavez that could be overlooked among the laudatory statements being issued in the wake of the death of the gargantuan figure.

The following are experts from the book, titled The Confessions of the Tortilla Priest (The San Diego Review Inc., 2244 Second Ave. #16, San Diego, CA 92101, $11.95).

In my years with Chavez, I have always been impressed by the fact that he insists that important events in the farm worker movement - marches, demonstrations, conventions - begin with Mass. ...

Once, in 1971, Cesar told me that he hoped one of his sons might someday become a priest. ... On one occasion I took Chavez's two younger sons out to play softball. I bought the younger son, Antonio, a bat. I bought Paul a mitt. Maybe I let Cesar down by buying his younger sons baseball equipment instead of Bibles.

Over the years that I have known Chavez I have noticed that he is truly a servant because he never asks anyone to do something unless he first does it. Back in June 1966 when I went to jail with him, I was inspired because he himself was willing to go to jail.

He set the example for me and for others. Because he was willing to go to jail, we followed his example and also went. ...

Here is what Cesar once said about churches: "We don't ask for bigger churches or fine gifts. We ask for the church's presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We don't ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don't ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood."...

From the beginning of the grape strike that started in 1965 and continuing to the present, Cesar has insisted on nonviolence. In order to prove to the farm workers, the growers and everyone involved that he is serious about nonviolence, Cesar Chavez has undertaken many fasts with the objective of preventing violence.

His first fast in 1968 lasted 25 days, and it was successful in reducing violence during the first grape boycott, a struggle that was ultimately won in 1970. All of his fasts were life-threatening. His most recent and longest fast of 36 days, undertaken in the summer of 1988, was effective in focusing national attention on the third boycott.

I sincerely believe that this longest fast proved beyond a doubt his dedication to nonviolence and his spirit of servanthood. Here's what he said in 1968 when he ended his first fast:

"When we are really honest with ourselves, we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of people we are. It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life.

"I am convinced that the truest act of courage ... is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice."

Over the years, Cesar has always believed that one should not personally benefit from helping others. Cesar has lived up to this conviction. It is a well-known fact that leaders of many unions draw annual salaries that are in six digits. Cesar receives a salary of only about $5,000 a year.

I admire his sensitivity to anything that might give the public the wrong ideas about the farm worker movement. Yet another outstanding quality of the man is the courage he has displayed over the last quarter century - this under the pressure of having to constantly worry about the threats made on his life, intimidations, slurs and gossip.

I was privileged to have been at the site where a serious threat on his life was made in 1971. The scene was a large public park in Santa Maria in central California, where over a thousand workers were gathered for an outdoor field Mass.

I was scheduled to say the Mass at 10 a.m. When the time arrived, Chavez did not. I waited and waited and when he failed to show, I finally started the Mass at 11:30 am. The next day, I was informed that ... he did not come because a paid assassin was present at the Mass with plans to kill him.
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Title Annotation:excerpts from book, 'The Confessions of the Tortilla Priest'; Cesar Chavez
Author:Salandini, Victor
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 7, 1993
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