April 25th, 2012

Narratives in a Digital Age

Behind the Story Sources: “The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement”

Author and journalist Miriam Pawel wrote a behind-the-scenes narrative account of the United Farm Workers movement filled with engrossing characters whose lives captured different pieces of a larger story that had not been told as honestly or comprehensively before her book came along.

Miriam was able to interview the characters who had been involved in the UFW, since many were still alive during her reporting. Yet in her book she also relied heavily on an array of historical documents to capture the era and key events in it, along with scenes involving the man that so many identified with the movement, Cesar Chavez. Some of Miriam’s primary sources are available on the book’s web site.

Publishers Weekly wrote of “The Union of Their Dreams:”

"Steeped in the recordings and primary source materials from these years, Pawel recreates the era-but with an awareness of the ironies and contradictions made plainer by hindsight. While noting Chávez’s instrumental charisma, she also records heretofore cloaked internal conflicts among disgruntled union leaders chafing under Chávez’s strict concept of sacrifice, his social conservatism and his adamant hold on power, which in the 1970s led to damaging purges of leaders he accused of disloyalty." 

Miriam shared a few key sources with us that were essential to her story:

1.) Court documents and transcripts from hearings.

“Court transcripts are really good for dialogue. You can quote from journals and letters. But it’s harder to find dialogue.

Dialogue puts you there. It helps set up the scene, and also as a writing tool the rule of thumb is that quotes slow you down, and dialogue speeds the story up. As a writing device if you can have dialogue it helps you move along faster as opposed to a block of quotes. It helps even to have little snippets of it.”

2.) Newspaper stories and radio or television shows, which often have live quotes from people interviewed by reporters. She was able to find clips from small newspapers in Oxnard, Bakersfield, and Yuma, some as far back as the 1930s. Many of this was accessible through public libraries.

“Hundreds of papers have been digitized — and it’s searchable.”

3.) Historical archives which kept audio tapes, among other records.

“I used the Wayne State Archives to get the reel tapes. It was labor-intensive and also somewhat costly because I had to get copies of them. The archivist there worked with me was very helpful in finding a place to send tapes to digitize them and make copies. I listened to hundreds of hours of tapes. In addition to allowing me to quote from dialogue, it helped me to get a sense of personalities and dynamics. It’s like being a fly on the wall in the room. Going from being a journalist to being a historian is like giving up the sensation of seeing things yourself and witnessing them firsthand, which is kind of odd feeling at first – but you have access to materials you would never have if you were covering it in real time. To be able to listen to all these discussions the inner workings, in some ways you can recreate a scene in even more detail than if you were there.

I had about 800 hours of tape. I listened a couple hours every night. I would just get absorbed in listening. I took notes as I was sitting in front of computer.”

4.) Photos, which aided Miriam in capturing scenes of Cesar Chavez speaking, what he was wearing, what the room looked like, as well as the people in it. She was able to view hundreds and hundreds of photos since many photojournalists had documented the era, and many of these photos were available online.

“Photos help you describe things, like the march up Highway 99 to Sacramento in 1966. Looking at pictures of people spread out was very evocative.”

5.) Going to the place and taking tours with people who lived through the times and can recollect. Miriam spent time hanging out with people who would, “drive me around to where UFW office was, where they marched.”

“I went to a lot of places in the book, to see them. It’s important to do that to write about place. Oxnard and Salinas, to a jail that had been boarded up now, but was still there.”

Getting source documents is not easy. In some cases it took a tremendous amount of legwork just to track down the documents, Miriam explained. Once you have the information:

“The tricky part is balancing the rich amount of detail with being careful about still being factual.”

She added:

“Because I had people still alive, I used interviews to flesh out some of the color. I was pretty judicious in what I used. Ultimately you decide who you think is credible and whose account checked out against primary source documentation.”

  1. ljdigital posted this


A blog created by the Literary Journalism Department @ the University of California, Irvine, dedicated to discussions about non-fiction narratives in this ever-evolving era of E-books, E-readers, Blogs, Instapaper, The Atavist, Byliner, Amazon's Kindle Singles and all other new media outlets open to promoting great journalism. LJ Digital is managed by Asst. Prof. Erika Hayasaki and Cleo Tobbi, intern and UCI literary journalism student.