March 31 marks the birthday of Cesar Chavez, one of the all-time heroes of Nonviolence. Cesar understood the interconnection between human rights, environmental stewardship, and animal protection. He taught us how our consumer choices affect the world around us. And he truly “walked the talk” — making consumer choices connected to his values of kindness, justice, and compassion for other people, for the planet, and for all animals. Ahead of his time? Or, maybe, just in time.

We thought it might be helpful for those of you interested in practicing and advancing Active Nonviolence to offer a synopsis of what, strangely and sadly, is a rare find — a book looking deeply into Cesar Chavez’ genius in understanding and using Nonviolence.

This is not a book “review” but rather a short synopsis for those who can’t find time to read further. For those who can make the time, we highly recommend it.

Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence
Orosco, Jose-Antonio. 2008.
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Orosco points out that the contributions of Cesar Chavez to Nonviolence theory have been largely ignored or overlooked (as in Ira Chernus’ American Nonviolence) or have been kept in the shadow of the contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s adaptations of the Nonviolent strategies of Mohandas Gandhi.  With Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence, Orosco places the spotlight on the unique aspects of Chavez’ contributions and the important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other Nonviolence theorists.

Orosco reminds us that Cesar Chavez (who only attended school through the eighth grade) tends not to be recognized in academic circles as an “intellectual” as are Gandhi, King, Richard Gregg, and Gene Sharp, but that this is an unfortunate oversight.  He calls Chavez a “community intellectual” – someone who may not come from the world of academia, but nonetheless contributes to an important body of knowledge.  Chavez’ knowledge instead comes from real-world experience and on-the-ground testing of his theories.  But Chavez was also an accomplished speaker and speech writer.  Most of Orosco’s claims of Chavez’ beliefs and strategies come from recorded and written speeches of Chavez during his activism spanning across four decades.

Orosco breaks the primary points of Chavez’ theory of Nonviolence into five distinct chapters:

Chapter one explains Chavez’ strategies for recruiting and activism.  He drew from his experiences in the Latino/a culture to create a three-fold strategy that included pilgrimage (as in marching and suffering together to create a community of activists), penitence (evoking Christian beliefs of penitence and his own stress on the importance of reflection on motivations to make them unselfish), and revolution (while Orosco admits Chavez was a reformist working through political channels, he shows that Chavez’ long-term goal was nothing short of transforming the U.S. culture to one of compassion and cooperation).

Chapter two includes a strong and effective rebuttal to claims by some academics (specifically Ward Churchill) and activist theorists (specifically Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon) that Nonviolence bows to the state and remains impotent by ignoring violent means as potentially effective in creating social change.  Orosco shows how Chavez claims that that type of thinking is limited in its creativity, ignores the true nature of power (as proposed by Gene Sharp and by Hannah Arendt), and is ultimately reverted to because of an inability to lead people (34).  Regarding the nature of power, Chavez makes an interesting point about government in this chapter saying that the type of government really doesn’t matter – the will of the people is where power lies.

Chapter three included Chavez’ reasoning behind the fruitlessness (and dangers) of property destruction, mostly because it contradicts the end goal of Chavez – a just society.

Chapter four speaks to the claims that machismo equals violence.  Chavez says that just the opposite is true – that giving one’s life to others is more powerful than taking lives.  He supports feminist theory and the idea that power and the means for maintaining power should be available to all not just those with physical or political might.  Orosco reminds us of the important roles of influential women in the lives of not only Chavez, but of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King.

Finally, chapter five contrasts the use of time by King and Chavez.  King used “crisis time” to evoke change and to motivate activists, the public, and politicians.  Chavez resisted this tactic and instead set his strategy on moving toward a new social paradigm of collaboration.  This required everyday citizens to maintain a “daily commitment” to Nonviolence and to the strategies that would lead toward a more just society – not simply a crisis-motivated piece of legislation.  Orosco reminds us that King moved toward this strategic use of time and moral commitment after 1966 when he began to focus on the Vietnam War and the Poor People’s Campaign.

All one,

🙂