OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Matt Garcia

Portrait of Matt Garcia

Matt Garcia is a professor of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies and history at Dartmouth College. Originally from California, he previously taught at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the University of Oregon, Brown University, and Arizona State University. He is the author of A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (2001), which won the Oral History Association's best book award, and, most recently, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (2012), which won the Philip Taft Award for the best book in labor history. He is a coeditor, with E. Melanie DuPuis and Don Mitchell, of Food Across Borders: Production, Consumption, and Boundary Crossing in North America (2017). Garcia was also the outreach director and coprimary investigator for the Bracero Archive Project , which received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant as well as a Best Public History Award from the National Council for Public History.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) convened its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California in 1970. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. By the mid-1970s, the United Farm Workers pursued justice within the boundaries of a state law, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, and the implementation of state-monitored union elections on California farms in 1976. In spite of these triumphs, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers lost their way by the late 1970s, never to regain the strength they enjoyed during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In his presentation, Matt Garcia, author of the new book From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (University of California Press, 2012), discusses the lessons from the movement and why it is important to hold Cesar Chavez accountable for its failure to achieve its primary goal: the establishment of a national farm worker union. Garcia avoids presenting Chavez as an apotheosized saint prevalent in most other renditions of this history. Rather, Garcia reveals him to be a man subject to emotions and impulses that shape all of us. His presentation explores the consequences of more than forty years of Chavez hagiography and why we need to begin exploring the complexities of his character and the union he lead. Ultimately Garcia argues for a new look at this history that contributes to a stronger, more accountable food justice movement today.
In 2014 journalists identified deported gang members from Los Angeles as the culprits of violence and the forced migration of youths from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. While the drug wars created instability, this story hides a longer relationship between the United States and the region. A century of banana cultivation and capital extraction at the hands of US-based fruit companies contributed to the economic malaise that now passes for normalcy in these nations. Honduras suffered under the control of the United Fruit Company, whose business model depended on the complete submission of workers to the whims of corporate owners. During the 1960s, however, a glimmer of hope emerged when a new corporate executive, Eli Black, led a successful takeover of United Fruit. Black, an ordained rabbi and Polish immigrant, increased Honduran wages, provided free electricity to workers, and made it possible for employees to become homeowners. Seen as a precursor to the “socially conscious” capitalist of today, Black tried to reverse years of exploitation and change the image of the United States abroad. The experiment did not last as economic volatility, political turmoil, and environmental catastrophe doomed his reform efforts in the 1970s. What started as a noble dream ended in tragedy when Black took his own life. This overlooked chapter of a multinational corporation and the country it exploited reveals lessons about the limits of ethical business practices in an emerging era of free trade.
In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) convened its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a multiracial movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. Chavez often referred to the boycott as “capitalism in reverse” for its power to turn ordinary shoppers into union allies. Garcia discusses the accomplishments of the movement, including the benefits gained through the formation of a diverse organization that welcomed contributions from numerous ethnic and racial groups, men and women, young and old. For a time, the UFW was the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community. Garcia demonstrates that the community became increasingly difficult to maintain for Chavez as the state of California became more involved in adjudicating labor disputes in the mid-1970s. Although Chavez and the UFW ultimately failed to establish a permanent union, the boycott offers important lessons to those wishing to build a new food justice movement today.