As Levy points out in his preface, César Chávez is technically not an autobiography because he, not the subject, decided what to include. The book nevertheless benefits from one important strength of the autobiography: voice. The reader is allowed to experience much of Chávez’s life story and philosophy of nonviolence through his own words, either as told to the author or presented in speeches. Of particular interest to young readers are the first one hundred pages of the book, which are devoted to Chávez’s childhood and to the trials that his family faced as small-time farmers in Arizona.
Levy clearly holds his subject in high regard. He emphasizes not only Chávez’s groundbreaking efforts in the world of union organizing but also the religious and philosophical ideas, such as nonviolence, that informed them. “Truth is your ultimate weapon,” Levy suggests to Chávez. His reply is “Yes. And truth is nonviolence. So everything really comes from truth. Truth is the ultimate. Truth is God.” Chávez is portrayed as a saintly figure, peaceful and high-minded, driven by lofty purpose, not power or ego. When Chávez fasts for weeks in order to protest picket-line violence, his action plays an almost spiritual role in uniting workers as never before.
Yet the portrait is not without blemishes. The reader learns of Chávez’s occasional outbursts of temper and is told about his arguments with close friend and colleague Dolores Huerta. He is portrayed as an exacting leader who holds associates to the same standards that he applies to...
(The entire section is 646 words.)
From its publication in 1975, César Chávez: Autobiography of La Causa won acclaim for its scope and depth of observation. One critic placed it alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) in the ranks of grand political literature. Unlike other writers who covered the emergence of the United Farm Workers as a radical new type of labor organization, Levy, who served as a press aide for the union, won almost complete access to its main players. He traveled with Chávez for five years, conducting long interviews with him and his closest associates and joining bargaining sessions and strategy meetings. There was no part of the union’s business that Levy did not witness as a participant or observer. As a result, the work is a reliable landmark account of a cause as it grew and evolved.
The book is not the first account of California migrant farm workers or even the union’s campaign, but it is unique among reportorial accounts for capturing so fully Chávez’s own version of the events. As an international symbol of the aspirations of millions of Chicanos, Chávez and his movement underlined an important demographic shift in the United States and exemplified efforts by Hispanic Americans for self-empowerment in the barrios as well as in the fields. The book adds to U.S. labor history by carrying the story so vividly to a countryside peopled by overlooked American heroes.