A feature-length, Hollywood-produced film about a fabled union organizer? Now there’s something you don’t see every day. Director Diego Luna recreated the historic birth and life of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) through the story of its founder, Cesar Chavez.
A civil rights activist of Mexican-American descent with a background in farm work, Chavez fought tirelessly for justice. Played by Michael Peña, his signature humble and understated manner contrasted with the violence and animosity perpetrated by outraged supporting characters. Chavez proved his fervent commitment to nonviolence with a hunger strike that lasted 25 days – he didn’t resume eating until every member of the union joined him in this commitment. Weak and worn, he finally broke the fast alongside the union as well as supporters like Senator Bobby Kennedy by receiving communion at Catholic Mass.
Chavez’s organizing career began in San Jose with the Community Service Organization (CSO), speaking out across California about workers’ rights. This experience prepared him for a more hands-on role in actively ameliorating conditions for migrant farm workers. Along with fellow organizer Dolores Huerta, Chavez moved the grape-field-filled Delano, California and began recruiting workers to the NFWA.
His wife and children also went to Delano. The movie shows the negative impacts on their relationships, particularly with Chavez’s oldest son Fernando. Gains of the union supported by Chavez’s intense investment are contrasted with Fernando feeling neglected by his father. Helen Chavez, Cesar’s wife, played by America Ferrera, also struggled with his commitment to the union, though she too was an avid supporter. Screaming “Huelga!” (the Spanish word for “strike”) on a farm with workers present got her arrested. When California outlawed this act, the union decided that injunction was the best way to fight such unjust and racist laws. Notably, the shout’s English translation was perfectly legal.
Starting with a small group of workers in a Californian farm town, the farm worker movement spread from Delano to the rest of the nation and eventually across the Atlantic with a boycott of table grapes. The boycott’s vast support lead to a monumental win when the grape growers signed an agreement with the United Farm Workers (a conglomerate of Mexican and Filipino farm workers) at long last.
Though inspiring, the story may have been hard to follow without any background knowledge on the situation. The back and forth between the workers, the growers and the legislators was told in a very linear fashion compared to the more complex reality.
Cesar Chavez is now playing at Ronnie’s 20 Wehrenberg Cinema in South County.