Monday, March 27, 2017

César Chávez on faith: Leader's quotes inspire in more ways than one

A book review by Daniel A. Olivas

Historian and El Paso native Mario T. García has edited the absorbing and essential The Gospel of César Chávez: My Faith in Action (Sheed & Ward). The book collects quotations from the late labor leader to help elucidate the undeniable connection between Chávez's religious beliefs and his political activism.

Chávez realized that pacifism was a difficult form of protest. He once said: "To be nonviolent in a monastery is one thing, but being nonviolent in a struggle for justice is another."

But Chávez's faith kept him from wavering, García said, citing his favorite quotation: "Today, I don't think I could base my will to struggle on cold economics or on some political doctrine. I don't think there would be enough to sustain me. For me, the base must be faith."

García told me that he was "surprised and amazed" by Chávez's "deep and thoughtful reflections on such a large range of spiritual topics," including social justice, the power of faith, pilgrimage, fasting, truth, love and death.

In the book, García's introduction offers an enlightening narrative of Chávez's spiritual, intellectual and political development. He then divides the quotations into 17 chapters, each with a mini-introduction on a particular theme—among them, "Abuelita or Grandmother Theology," "On Gandhi," "On Love" and "On Our Lady of Guadalupe."

Mario T. García

García heavily annotates each chapter and ends the book with a bibliography. The book also includes a foreword by Virgil Elizondo, a professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame.

The book dispels any misconception that Chávez's beliefs were simple or unsophisticated. "You would think that these are the thoughts of a professional theologian," García said, "and yet they are the thoughts of a farmworker with no more than an eighth-grade education."

Response to the book has been positive and diverse: "Some recognize the historical and academic value of bringing attention to César's spirituality," García said. "Still others, including many of my Catholic friends (and) clergy, recognize that the book can also be seen as a spiritual book of meditations."

García was born and raised in El Paso, the son of a Mexican immigrant and an El Paso native. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from the University of Texas at El Paso, and then a doctorate from the University of California at San Diego. He is a professor of history and Chicano studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he has taught since 1975. García is also the author of almost 20 books, including two on El Paso history. His most recent book is Literature as History: Autobiography, Testimonio, and the Novel in the Chicano and Latino Experience published by the University of Arizona Press.

[A slightly different version of this review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

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