The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1996, Volume 42, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit.

By Richard Griswold del Castillo and Richard A. García. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 206 pages. $19.95. Buy this book.

Reviewed by Arthur Ramirez, Associate Professor of Mexican American Studies, Sonoma State University. Co-editor of Chicano Border Culture and Folklore (1993) and articles on Chicano culture and literature.

César Chávez (1927-1993), generally regarded as the best-known and mostly highly discussed Mexican American, is the subject of this bibliography. Chávez, born in Yuma, Arizona, transcended his major significance as a labor organizer and leader of California farm workers. People viewed, and continue to view, Chávez in different ways: a courageous model; a dedicated spokesperson for Mexican Americans in general; branded by enemies as a Communist rabble-rouser; a catalyst for the cultural “Chicano Renaissance”, and a spiritual humanist. Ultimately, this biography portrays him as a moral leader possessing uncommon energy.

The two biographers are both Chicano historians: Richard Griswold del Castillo from San Diego State University and Richard A. García, from California State University, Hayward. This study, however, is not limited to an academic readership. In fact, the co-authors make it clear that it is impossible to have a definitive biography of a figure as recent as Chávez. The result is a thoroughly researched book, showing depth and a consideration of Chávez’ multifaceted life, and told with clarity, precision, and sympathy. Griswold del Castillo and García do not allow abstract theories, jargon, or technical disquisitions on historiography to detract from their account. Footnotes and backnotes are also absent here, although a brief but informative bibliographic section at the end of the book clarifies sources and substantiates points made in the text. In short, Griswold del Castillo and García avoid tortured prose.

The authors have molded Chávez’ many complexities into a focused portrait of a man who emerged from the Chicano community as a man of all oppressed people. Just as Chávez’ life could be interpreted in many essential ways as a microscopic portrait of the Mexican American in twentieth-century America, this highly readable book represents the seemingly simple but highly complex man of the earth that Chávez embodied.

The compelling narrative traces the principal stages of Chávez’ life: the youngster who was forced to become a migrant worker; his own oppressive experiences in the fields; his zootsuit and military service days; his family life; the crucial influences on his life; his growing awareness of the contributions he could make as an organizer and leader; and the development of his dedication to realizing “La Causa.” Biographical interpretations include his commitment to a Gandhi-style non-violent ideology and his highly astute practice of politics intermingled with charisma, integrity and spirituality. The biographers also chronicle Chávez’ association with United Farm Worker Dolores Huerta, and thereby give appropriate attention to the increasing significance of the Chicana in the history of the Mexican American laborers’ struggles.

Griswold del Castillo and García notably move forward the serious study of Chávez and the emergence of the Chicano by means of painstaking research and lucid writing that generates an ever greater clarification of a person, a context, and a people. César Chávez: Triumph of the Spirit is valuable in itself while it also serves as a foundation for future study.


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