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

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Posted on Mar 27, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

(Page 2)

But Chavez’s story in the format of an accessible 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 workforce 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 last week 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.”

Chavez, who at one time used derogatory terms like “illegals” and “wetbacks,” should not be judged by today’s standards, Luna asserted. “You have to see things in context,” the director said. “The terms he used were the terms everyone used back then.” Luna offered an analogy: “I have pictures of my mum smoking while pregnant ... but in the context of the ’70s that was fine. Obviously today you and I would never say ‘illegals.’ ” The UFW maintains that “some people falsely claim the UFW is or has been against undocumented workers,” and lists on its foundation website the myriad ways in which the union and Chavez have been “longtime champions of immigration reform.”

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.”

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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. Perhaps 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.”


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