More than 20 years after his death, Cesar Chavez has finally been discovered by Hollywood.
It shouldn’t have taken this long in an industry populated by liberals that operates in a city – Los Angeles – whose population is now nearly 50 percent Latino. But there is a difference between not buying lettuce to support farmworkers in the 1970s and being willing to put up the money to fund a film on the assumption that people will go see it.
The life and legend of Cesar Chavez will be plastered on movie screens all over the country beginning Friday, when “Cesar Chavez: An American Hero” opens nationwide (some Albuquerque screenings will take place Thursday evening). Michael Pena is cast as the United Farm Workers leader.
A group of Mexican filmmakers – including Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal and Pablo Cruz, all of whom run the upstart production company Canana Films – deserves credit for telling a story that their Mexican-American counterparts have wanted to tell since the ’70s.
For the last few weeks, there have been invitation-only screenings in select cities, which are doubling as fundraisers for the UFW Foundation. There was a special screening for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and another at the White House.
I know this story well – sometimes, I think, a little too well. I’ve been writing about Chavez and his union for a quarter-century. I once had a confrontation with Chavez himself and another with the UFW’s co-founder, Dolores Huerta. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the indefensible.
The good: Chavez and the union helped bring dignity into the fields, and it came in the form of toilets, clean water, collective bargaining, lunch breaks and the demise of el cortito. The medieval and crippling short-handled hoe, once ubiquitous in the backbreaking world of farm labor, was eventually outlawed by the state of California in 1975.
The bad: By the 1980s, Chavez began to believe his own press clippings, became paranoid and distrustful of allies, and grew far removed from the very farmworkers he professed to represent. Instead of organizing workers, he got distracted by the drama of calling for grape boycotts. A movement that started out trying to help workers wound up being about simply hurting growers.
The indefensible: Chavez, his cronies and the union itself were essentially surrogates for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. More concerned with maintaining leverage than protecting human rights, Chavez and Co. would call the INS to demand that they come and arrest illegal immigrants who crossed the picket lines. What the union folks referred to derisively as “strikebreakers” were really just people eager to work to feed their families.
It is no wonder that President Obama, who has deported nearly 2 million people, likes to refer to Chavez when speaking to Latino groups. The two would have gotten along splendidly.
The real story of Chavez and the UFW is full of nuance and contradictions. Judging by the trailer, early reviews and media accounts, the dark side of Chavez and the UFW was left out of the film.
This is one of the reasons I expect to emerge from the theater feeling disappointed and frustrated. The movie’s rendition of Chavez is likely to be more saintly than the real thing – and more one-dimensional.
That’s too bad. It would have made for a better story to show how Chavez failed the same immigrant farmworkers that many people think he was supposed to represent.
But I also expect to feel proud that this story is finally being told, even if it is incomplete.
Blame it on my roots. As a native of the San Joaquin Valley, I was raised about an hour’s drive from the Central California town of Delano where much of the history of the UFW was written. All four of my grandparents worked in the fields picking fruits and vegetables. So did my parents when they were growing up.
People still do such work today. Even in the age of machination, some crops have to be picked by hand.
And guess whose hands. Farmworkers do the hard and dirty work necessary to feed the nation.
And whether or not Hollywood realizes it, in this story, those are the real heroes.
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