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‘Cesar Chavez’ shows the power of union organizing

When Ronald Reagan famously ate grapes on television as governor of California in 1969, he was thumbing his nose at a growing movement for the rights of farmworkers. The grape boycott that Reagan proudly defied put him on the wrong side of history. Today, the leader of that boycott, Cesar Chavez, who died more than 20 years ago at the age of 66, has a feature film dramatizing his life.

The 1960s struggle of migrant farmworkers in California played out alongside many other political movements of the time. Long hours, brutal conditions and lower-than-minimum wages provided the impetus for the great grape strike and boycott, centered in Delano, Calif. The campaign, led by Chavez and Dolores Huerta, co-founders of the group that would become the United Farm Workers of America, lasted more than five years and involved hundreds of miles-long marches, nearly month-long hunger strikes and brutal police violence.

That story and Chavez’s central role in it are depicted in a new biopic by Mexican actor and director Diego Luna. The film, “Cesar Chavez,” opened in theaters Friday. Starring Michael Peña as Chavez, America Ferrera as Chavez’s wife Helen and Rosario Dawson as Huerta, the film is Luna’s directorial debut.

Thirty-five-year-old Luna is no stranger to politics and political filmmaking. He has spoken out about Mexico’s brutal drug war, lending his support to family members of the war’s victims who traveled across the U.S. in a caravan from Mexico. He has also supported drug legalization to undermine cartels. And he co-founded Ambulante, the largest documentary film festival in Mexico, to “support and spread documentary film as a tool of social and cultural transformation.”

In an interview, I asked him why, as a Mexican national, he considered the American Chavez an important figure worth making a film about. Luna told me, “It transcends the experience of Mexican Americans or Latinos here. It’s a story about change, about a nonviolent movement, about a beautiful message of being united and finding strength in numbers.” Luna believes “it is a story that should be told in this country, but also south of the border, in Latin America.”

In only 1 hour and 40 minutes, Luna weaves a brisk narrative that jumps headfirst into Chavez’s efforts to unionize farmworkers in Delano in 1965. The young filmmaker said he was deeply inspired by “how intelligent [the strike organizers] were and how much ahead of their time they were.” He marveled at how migrant farmworkers were “a forgotten community, completely ignored, that suddenly said ‘Hmmm ... there is a chance for us to connect with consumers. And it’s nonviolence that will get us there.’ ”

Luna imagined the conversations that farmworkers might have had with the public, saying, “I have no bathrooms when I work in the fields; if I miss a day, I lose my job. There’s nothing that can assure me I have a job. Every morning I’m in the position of not knowing if I can bring back food to the table. But in the meantime I’m feeding a country!”

Rather than using extras to depict workers, Luna collaborated closely with the UFW to cast actual farmworkers in his film. He explained, “You cannot put makeup on someone and make it look like [a farmworker]. It’s easier to tell a farmworker what we do in film than explaining to an extra what it is to be a farmworker.”

The result is a portrait of a movement with which no one can remain unsympathetic. Peña’s performance as Chavez is nuanced and authentic, showcasing his organizing triumphs as well as his private anguish over his rocky family ties. That Luna chose to explore Chavez’s relationship with his wife and older son Fernando is commendable. Stories depicting larger-than-life male heroes rarely count the high costs of balancing work and family.

The telling of Chavez’s story in a feature film comes at a time when organized labor is attempting to revive itself with high profile efforts at Walmart and in the fast-food industry. It also highlights the importance of the nation’s immigrant work force at a time when immigration reform and the increasing demographic representation of Latinos in the U.S. are hot-button issues. Ironically, Luna’s film screened at the White House earlier this month with President Obama — labeled by immigrant rights activists as “Deporter-in-Chief” — giving the opening remarks.

Chavez and the UFW have had a historically complicated relationship with immigration, which Luna chose not to explore in his film. Although the majority of farmworkers they represented were undocumented, Chavez opposed the role that new undocumented immigrants crossing the border played in breaking the UFW’s strike, and to that end, he opposed the U.S.’ controversial Bracero program for immigrant guest workers. Luna defended Chavez, saying, “From the beginning of the union until today, they represent undocumented workers. It’s not about documents or legal status, it’s about breaking a strike. They always invited every worker to join the union.”

Clearly troubled by Obama’s harsh policies on immigration, Luna told me, “I worry a lot about deportations, and I worry a lot about how they are doing them. This is a very big problem . . . and it’s breaking families.” But he maintained it is not enough to simply end deportations. “You have to fix the whole thing,” he insisted. “This is a form of slavery and it is something I don’t want to be part of. Eleven million people working in this country without having the rights of those who are consuming the fruit of their labor — that can’t be called the ‘Land of Freedom,’ come on! It’s just ridiculous.”

In explaining to me his thought process, Luna illuminated the shortcomings of film as a medium, saying, “I did a lot of research . . . to find out what it is to be a union organizer. I needed to know almost everything to then try to forget it, and then go and do the film I wanted to do. Yes, I got all this information, all these details, I took many notes, I rewrote the script so many times.” But, he acknowledged, “you go to shoot and it’s not anymore about that because film is not a history lesson. The idea of a film is to entertain.”

Luna’s “Cesar Chavez” should be seen as an entry point for Americans who know little about him to dig deeper and perhaps discover films such as the 2008 documentary “Viva La Causa: The Story of Cesar Chavez and a Great Movement” or the newly completed documentary “Cesar’s Last Fast” by Richard Ray Perez, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Festival. They may also seek out books such as Jacques Levy’s “Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa” or Miriam Pawel’s just-published “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: a Biography.” Even the UFW website is an easily accessible online resource with a wealth of information.

Ultimately, Chavez’s story offers prescient lessons for the work that remains to be done today on immigrant and labor rights. Luna distilled it, saying, “As this community [of farmworkers] showed us, it’s about organizing. It’s about getting together, raising our voice at the same time.”

Sonali Kolhatkar is host of the program “Uprising” on Los Angeles-based KPFK radio.

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