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Diego Luna’s ‘Cesar Chavez’ Showcases the Power of Union Organizing and Immigrant Labor

Posted on Mar 27, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

Pantelion Films

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, not only has his March 31 birthday commemorated each year, but he now 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, the co-founders of the National Farm Workers Association (today known as 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, named simply “Cesar Chavez,” opens in theaters Friday, just days before what would have been the labor organizer’s 87th birthday. 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.”

Best known for his role in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También,” Luna has also appeared in Hollywood films such as “Criminal,” “Casa de mi Padre” and most recently “Elysium.” In an interview on Uprising, 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 one 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. Most stories depicting larger-than-life male heroes rarely count the high costs of balancing work and family.

The authenticity of the film is also apparent in the many clips of actual black and white news footage Luna inserted seamlessly in between dramatizations. Although an actor plays the role of Bobby Kennedy, Reagan appears as himself, and the result is coherent.

If any aspects of Chavez’s story get short shrift in the film, it is his formative years—as this review points out, what is a superhero without an origin story?—as well as the role that Filipino union organizers played in the strike and boycott. Filipino activists in Los Angeles were so upset at the downplaying of union organizer Larry Itliong’s role in the film that they even picketed the premiere.


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