HIS DISCIPLES say it like this: Sayzar . The name jumps, not rolls, out at you. Say-zar . It is full of pride and love and La Causa. It shimmers on their lips like shook foil.

He played handball the other night near midnight. His aides had it built into the schedule. He won. That day he had done 16 interviews in Washington and had talked on the phone for an hour to people back home.

Cesar Chavez is 52 now. Some say he is an old man in a dry season, stoop-hoeing ground that's already been worked. The '60s are dead, everybody says, and so is "the movement." Cesar Chavez laughs at this, hoots at this. The movement will never be dead. The network is there. It's just different now.

"What they don't know," he says, "is that it's not bananas or grapes or lettuce. It's people." The "they" are growers. The enemy.

He never stays at a hotel. He stays with friends, local organizers. If they don't have a bed, he takes the floor.If they don't have a phone, he goes to the corner. In Boston last week, he stayed with Franciscan priests. His whereabouts here this week were a secret: Security.

He works 16 hours on a slow day, 20 on a tough one. Three hours' sleep fixes him fine; five is luxury. He meditates. He practices yoga. He fasts. He is a strict vegetarian. (Except for cheese, he won't even take dairy products.) His heroes are Gandhi and Dr. King and St. Francis of Assisi.

He never made it past the seventh grade.

Cesar Chavez came to Washington this week. He came for La Causa. At the moment La Causa is a bitter strike by his union against lettuce growers in California's Imperial Valley. The Imperial Valley is a place of flat, socking heat near the Mexican border. It is a place where brown-skinned men are accustomed to piling on buses at 4 a.m. to be driven like willing convicts to seas of ripening lettuce. Now a man has been killed there, gunned in an open field. The charges fly back and forth.

To dramatize the strike, Padre Chavez has called for a nationwide boycott of Chiquita bananas, which is owned by the conglomerate that owns the lettuce growers. Just like the old days. The lettuce growers say Chavez is a demagogue and worse, that he condones violence among his own, that he demands increases up to 200 percent in some cases.

Now the battle is moving north, to the Salinas Valley and the next season. Cesar Chavez once more says the future of his union hangs in the balance, that what started as economics is now a matter of survival.His union has been surviving for 17 cycles of seasons.

The founder, the president, the abiding calm of the United Farm Workers of America-100,000 members strong-is a small man. There is softness in his face and on his palms and in his smile. There is gray in his coal, swept hair. His eyes seem to have longing in them. He looks like a grandfather-and is, with eight grandkids and more on the way. But don't mistake: He can lash with anger from a podium, and he can strike like a rattler in private talk.

The people at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who deny they are letting in strikebreakers from across the border, are "liars." Bring up a point in favor of growers and he cuts it off with: "What about our stomachs and our pockets?"

He had an electrocardiogram once. A decade later he had another one. The reading hadn't moved a peg. "If I don't get hit by a car or a bullet, I will live to be at least 100 and active through 95," he says. He turns around and says: "Death is nothing. I already took care of the fear. You cannot lead if you're afraid. And you cannot lead if you're not in front."

The man brims with contradiction. He is an ascetic-who is never home. A pacifist-who goes to war. A shepherd-who is tyrannical.

He doesn't think he's a great man; never did. "I work. Money is unimportant. A new car doesn't matter. A house draws you back." For 20 years, he says, from 1950 to 1970, he never had a great victory. "Everything turned to dust. We lost. And I used to say, 'Well, our day will come.'" It did, in a dusty little town in the San Joaquin Valley named Delano. There have been other great victories since. But the 1970 Delano contract was first.

Consider the worker now: He's sitting half-turned on a Naugahyde chair in brittle artificial light in the Monroe Room of the International Inn at Scott Circle. It is 8 o'clock in the morning.

Though there are people around him, clergy mostly, he looks alone. Deep.Faraway. A stubby, brown hand comes in water-smooth movement to his eye. It fists away the tiredness. Then it returns.

Behind him stands a 200-pound Chicano with a walrus mustache: Security. His son-in-law, Richard, is nearby too. He also is a bodyguard. He also is Chavez's handball partner.

Chavez is in a rich-looking, gray-flannel, longsleeved shirt; black khakis; the kind of black work shoes you buy in the basement at Montgomery Ward. He's wearing white socks. A ski jacket is over the back of the chair.

This is a breakfast/news conference specially aimed at religious leaders. An auxiliary bishop from the archdiocese is here, along with a monsignor from the U.S. Catholic Conference, a Methodist on the National Council of Churches, some nuns.

The room is not exactly jammed with urban liberals. You can't taste the tension. There isn't a Kennedy in sight (Wire-flash photo, 1968: Bobby hands a piece of bread to Cesar at an outdoor mass in Delano. Chavez has been fasting for 25 days.) There are two coffee urns in this sad, sterile room; some Danish; maybe 35 people.

Cesar Chavez tried seeing Jimmy Carter this week. He was told he wasn't available.

He gets up to talk. At first, he seems confused, awkward, withdrawn into long pauses. He says he thought this kind of struggle would be past- "the deaths and all that." His arm makes an aimless wave.

Then, like the gurgle of new oil coming up, he begins to rise. He is talking about the shooting of 27-year-old Rufino Contreras on Feb. 10. The sentences roll in mesmeric cadences. He isn't eloquent, except when he says, "They need to confuse the issue of violence because they have blood on their hands." Mostly, he is angry. "When we gave them our proposals, they laughed at us." Suddenly his hand, with a yellow legal sheet in it, flashes out over the lectern. A lady in front of him jumps.

Later, there is questioning. A priest wants to know about the full-page ads that have been running in The Washington Post and other papers accusing Chavez of violence within his own union: enforcers who slash tires, break windows, beat members over the head with clubs. Is it true, the priest asks, that the UFW can get its own people fired for not falling in line?

He is holding the lectern with both hands. His fingers drum on the wood; you can almost hear it. "Any union has its rules of majority voting. We voted to strike. The church does it. The government."

Afterward, he is standing in a circle of admirers. A young woman comes up. She looks in her early 20s, but she is older. She is a nun, though she is clad in mufti. "Cesar, I'm one of those kids you organized in Boston in the '60s," says, shaking a little. It is a warm moment. She mentions somebody named Marcos (now a mechanic). They trade stories; he moves on. But not before she presses money into his palm. "For the strike," she says.

"He was the central hero of my time," says Sister Diane Roche, who now lives with low-income families. "I was at Emmanuel College and we used to go over to Cambridge and lead the boycotts against Giant and Safeway. I'd still do anything to help him. Anything."

In the car going back to the National Association of Farmworker Organizations, on E Street, Chavez, sitting in the front seat, abruptly begins talking of his oldest granddaughter. Her name is Theresa, he says. Like the Little Flower. When she was 3 1/2, they put her on the picket line in Detroit with a sign that said, "I'm the picket captain." It was December 1973 and La Causa then was beating the Teamsters, who were out to destroy his union. (The UFW won that war, too. It was the last major Chavez cause until the lettuce strike.)

"Those stupid cops," he says, alive with laughter, his voice high, almost girly. "Ooooh me. They actually arrested her. They put her in the back of a police car and drove off. She said, 'I'm going to tell my Tata Cesar.' When she got to the station, there were jars of candy waiting for her."

He turns to his son-in-law. "Richard, we should play more handball. I feel good this morning." When he is home in California, says his press aide, he plays all the time. He knows every court at every college up and down the state. (He travels around in the back of a four-door Ford usually.) He grew up with the game.

He is asked about the pistons of energy that drive him. "Oh, that. It started about 30 years ago when I was getting in this work. I said, "There must be a way to get more time.' So I started yoga and the meditating and the diet. But anyway, I think tiredness is a self-imposed condition: 'Oh, I'm tired, oh, I'm tired.' You must self-will. If your mind is relaxed, your body is relaxed."

He is asked about La Paz. La Paz is 200 acres where Cesar Chavez lives in a community with his family and 200 associates 3,000 feet up in the Tehachapi Mountains, in pines and oaks. The place was once a TB sanitarium. It divides the San Joaquin from the Mojave Desert. Down below is Bakersfield. His wife and two of his eight children are there now. They live in a four-room, wood-frame cottage.

"Home?" he says, as if the word had made a queer sound. "I'm home anywhere. Anywhere is home. I'm home here. It happened when I first went to jail."

Suddenly, he is making terrible grimaces. His arms are straining at imaginary bars. "And I said, 'Hey, if I can't be at home here, I won't be able to be effective.' So I made my home in that jail."

That jail happened to be in Delano, in 1945. He wasn't a leader of migrants then; he was in the Navy and home on furlough. One day he went into a movie theater. The place was segregated. Whites on the left, Mexicans and blacks on the right.

"I don't know, the devil must have got in me. I never did anything like this before. I just got up and went over to the left side. A policeman came and got me behind the throat with his stick. I went." To this day, he says, he sits by instinct on the left side of movie theaters.

That was the first. There have been maybe 40 jailings since, the most recent last June in Yuma, Ariz. The memory makes him squirt, like a kid's pistol, with laughter. "The guy who put me in was my cousin. The district attorney, he was jumping up and down. 'We've got to get this guy out of here,' he kept saying."

His voice drops. This is a secret. "They don't want to put me in jail any more."

Cesar Chavez grew up in Arizona, in the Gila River Valley near Yuma. The family wasn't dirt-poor: There were horses and cows and some watermelons and lots of chickens. "It was like this," he says. "We could have had chicken three times a day, but not salt for it. You had to buy that."

There was a cool adobe house and there was love inside it. Chavez's grandfather had homesteaded the land in 1879, when he had come into the Territory as a peon from Mexico. It was all tumbleweed and mesquite and ugliness then. But the old man did what he could. And the land turned. In time, there was a harsh beauty. Fragile too, because in 1937, the property tax bill fell due and Cesar's father, Librado Chavez, couldn't pay. The county foreclosed. The farm was sold at auction. Cesar went to the fields. He was 10.

"All I knew growing up was that I was very determined," he says. "My mother always had trouble with me. I never wanted to play with anyone my own age. I was-hey, Richard, how do you call it? Caprichudo ."

"Stubborn," says Richard.

At the national Association of Farm-worker Organizations now, Cesar Chavez gets off the elevator, walks down a dark hallway. In every office are people crowding 30, wearing clothes you don't wear to Clyde's. You could blink and hope this was 1968.

Marc Grossman comes in. He does Cesar's press. He met Chavez in '69, when he was a student at U.C., Irvine. He got hooked. He will brief Chavez on his talk later today at the National Press Club.

"Castillo's at it again," he says. In his fist is a copy of the morning paper. He is talking of Leonel Castillo, head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Castillo denies his bureau is tolerating the illegal entry of Mexican nationals to break the strike.

Chavez does a funny thing. He reaches down and pulls his pant leg past his knee. He absorbs himself in scratching his leg, maybe so that he doesn't have to think of Leonel Castillo, who in a sense is a blood brother.

Most UFW workers make an hourly wage of $3.70. Chavez says that is worth $1.84, given inflation and the cost of living. The growers say most workers actually make much more than $3.70 because of "piece work" during harvest time. Some make $8 and more an housr. It doesn't matter, says Chavez. "Would you be out there all day for $8?' (Chavez says growers are excluded from President Carter's wage-price guidelines since they are producers of unprocessed foods. And workers making under $4 an hour are also excluded. Thus the 7 percent solution doesn't apply.)

Chavez thinks his boycott will bring the growers to their knees in 90 days. "We got 10 percent participation with grapes. That was devastating. All we need is 3 percent this time. One percent will get them to the table, 3 will get us a contract."

But this isn't grapes, this isn't 10 years ago. He flashes on it. "People who talk like that don't know.It's the vogue thing to say. I consider myself to be one of the experts in this country about people. It will be deceptively effective this time. You won't get students saying, 'Let's go burn the growers.' But the response will be there. I promise."

Some say Cesar Chavez's influence is on the wane. Despite his autocratic leadership, despite the peasant appeal, despite the cries of Viva Cesar , there is evidence that other people want in. The '70s are the era of Chicano Power, just as the '60s meant Black Power. Other voices clamor. "He thinks he is the farm labor movement," Texas Farm Workers organizer Alfredo Avila said lately. "Everything comes from Cesar."

The union itself is in transition. Once it was the pure cause; now it struggles to become a nuts-and-bolts organization, like the United Auto Workers, or the Textile Workers. Some say Cesar Chavez is out of touch and out of time.

"That's propaganda. It's ill-advised."

And then, like saving grace: "The workers will ask me to leave when they are ready. I trust in that."

Later, he says that when he does leave, he "already has another project ready." Of course, he refuses to say what it is. The game is worth a candle of smile.

He is in a long time of charismatic figures, this small, bulky man with the watery eyes and the undulant talk and the strange, almost magical calm. Charisma is a lousy word, he thinks. What does it mean? Aura is just as bad.

The line is ragged. It has no definition. You could maybe draw in the dust beside it the names of Zapata and Villa and Che and Toussaint L'Ouverture and Gandhi and St. Francis and Jesus and John and Bobby and Martin, and enough people would tell you-Cesar Chavez among them-that you are craze and nothing links these men save history.

"My whole being," he says, "is just not to be afraid to sacrifice."

Maybe that's not terribly eloquent. But this is. He said it in the fine white heat of the Delano battle: "We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as weapons."

Cesar Chavez has a dream. It isn't a very big dream. But it makes him happy. He comes close to tell.

"Someday I want to have enough time off to come here for two weeks with my wife and my grandchildren and go to the Smithsonian. I've never been there. Wouldn't that be great?" CAPTION: Picture 1, Cesar Chavez, by Larry Morris-The Washington Post; Picture 2, on the picket line with striking lettuce workers, by UPI.; Picture 3, Bobby Kennedy with Cesar Chavez in 1968, by UPI.