Pfeil Review of Dalton The Moral Vision of Cesar Chavez

Dalton, Frederick John. The Moral Vision of César Chávez. By Frederick John Dalton. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003. Pages viii + 200. Paper, $20.00. ISBN: 1570754586

Reviewed by: Margaret R. Pfeil

This volume appeals to virtue ethics from the perspective of liberation theology to portray the moral meaning of César Chávez’s public witness as the founding organizer of the United Farm Workers of America. Beginning with the story of his own encounter with Chávez’s work and legacy, Dalton effectively employs a narrative approach to make the case that Chávez’s moral vision of the dignity of human labor was sustained by a lifelong process of character formation anchored in the virtues of nonviolent love, faith, justice, and solidarity.

James Gustafson’s analytical categories of the nature of the good, the character of the moral agent, and criteria for judgment and action serve to frame the heart of the book, chapters three through five. The first two chapters prepare the way by offering a broad view of Cháez’s life and faith development, touching upon the critical events that bore fruit in his liberating vision for migrant farm workers. Having experienced firsthand the dehumanizing practices of an agribusiness system that valued profits over field laborers’ lives, Chávez chose to dedicate his adult life to la causa, advocating for structural transformation according to the virtues of solidarity, justice, faith, and nonviolent love. From 1962 until his death in 1993, he committed himself to voluntary poverty and active nonviolence as constitutive practices of a life dedicated to this moral vision.

He found in Gandhi’s praxis a confirmation of the ascetical values of his own Christian faith and consequently directed his life and the farm workers’ movement toward the truth of working for justice out of self-sacrificial love. Crediting the witness of St. Francis of Assisi and his own parents, Chávez emphasized the spiritual freedom afforded by a simple lifestyle that counters violence with love.

Steeped in Mexican popular Catholicism in his formative years, Chávez drew from a deep well of faith to ground his work for justice. Major UFW events began with prayer, usually a celebration of the Mass. As with numerous subsequent marches, Chávez cast the three hundred-mile farm workers’ journey from Delano to Sacramento in 1966 as a Lenten penitential pilgrimage that would purify and strengthen them personally for the long journey toward structural transformation, both in the fields and in the church. Marshalling the resources of the Catholic social tradition with impressive facility, Chávez invited reluctant ecclesial leaders to walk with their people in demanding justice, even at the risk of alienating wealthy Catholic landowners.

With tremendous creativity, Chávez adapted community-organizing strategies developed from Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation to address the spiritual and material needs of a mainly Mexican, Mexican American, and Filipino migrant labor force. His faith-based approach met with some resistance among both workers and labor organizers, revealing two noteworthy theoretical issues. First, Dalton points to the stubborn strength of Chávez’s character and conviction in remaining steadfast in the fact of such opposition. Chávez insisted on maintaining the connection between personal conversion and structural transformation, a difficult theological ideal to realize in practice. The originality of Dalton’s contribution becomes most evident here because his telling of Chávez’s narrative illustrates the significance of applying virtue ethics from the perspective of liberation theology. Character formation in the life of virtue unfolds as a social project. If it is genuine, personal conversion will have structural implications that will be most perceptible from the perspective of the poor. Dalton could develop the significance of his own method even further to tease out these insights.

Secondly, given the notorious association of labor unions with coercive and often lethal tactics, Chávez’s absolute commitment to active nonviolence represented a courageous and ingenious approach to effecting justice for society’s poorest and most vulnerable workers. To fully appreciate the meaning of Chávez’s contribution would require more explication than Dalton offers, but his account provides a thoughtful point of departure for further exploration.

Dalton writes at a basic level for a general audience. Those seeking more theoretical grounding regarding active nonviolence, community organizing, virtue ethics, and liberation theology will need to consult supplementary texts, and Dalton’s footnotes will prove quite useful here. This volume will resonate with undergraduate students interested in social ethics, liberation theology, and Hispanic/Latino theology, and particularly with those engaged in experiential learning courses. Parish communities may also find it a fruitful stimulus for discerning their own commitments to social justice. With the advent of free trade agreements, the plight of the farm workers has been replicated across multiple industries and borders. In the face of these signs of the times, The Moral Vision of César Chávez invites readers to ask how communities of character might practice the virtues of nonviolent love, justice, faith, and solidarity to affirm the priority of dignified human labor over the accumulation of capital in local and global economic structures.