Some years before his death in 1993, Cesar Chavez was asked if he wanted to be remembered by statues and public memorials. The man who helped bring the plight of America’s farmworkers before the world throughout the 1960s and 1970s simply replied, “If you want to remember me, organize!”
Today, there are schools, murals, streets (including one in Los Angeles), memorials and statues honoring the man. In 2012, President Barack Obama dedicated the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, 30 miles southeast of Bakersfield, where the labor leader and his United Farm Workers movement operated. In fact, the organization’s motto, “Si, se puede,” loosely meaning “Yes, it can be done,” was an inspiration for the president’s own “Yes We Can” campaign slogan in 2008. And on Monday — Chavez’s birthday — California and other states will celebrate Cesar Chavez Day.
But while there are plenty of reminders of the man, many Americans would be hard-pressed to remember his accomplishments. The film “Cesar Chavez,” opening Friday from Mexican actor-director Diego Luna, hopes to not only remind people of Chavez’s legacy but inspire some discussion of its own.
It stars Michael Peña, the son of Mexican farmworkers himself, as Chavez; America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty”) as his wife, Helen Chavez; and Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta, the labor activist who co-founded the UFW with Chavez.
Delano, a town 31 miles north of Bakersfield, was headquarters for the union and is a focal point in the film. It concentrates on about a decade of Chavez’s life, beginning with his years in the early ’60s when he traveled through California working in the fields and making connections with the farm workers.
Luna, who starred in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 hit “Y Tu Mamá También,” says he was reminded of the labor leader when he began living in Los Angeles, seeing Cesar Chavez Avenue and his picture on murals. So he decided to research the man.
“It was a beautiful story, a lovely message,” says Luna, 34, who also has been in Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” (2004) and Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” (2008). In fact, his experience working on “Milk” — which was about assassinated gay activist Harvey Milk — influenced the way he approached “Chavez.” “They were both part of something bigger,” he says.
Bringing Chavez’s story to the screen was no easy sell, however. Few in Hollywood thought the story was sexy enough. The actor-director eventually found funding in his native Mexico and produced the movie with Canana Films, the company he founded with “Y Tu Mamá También” co-star Gael García Bernal and producer Pablo Cruz.
The $10 million film was shot in Sonora, Mexico, the center of the country’s grape industry. Temperatures often soared past 110 degrees during the shoot. But the area resembled California’s Central Valley of the 1960s, says Luna, explaining the state’s vineyards look completely different today because of technology. Sonora also was the source of real-life fruit pickers who worked as extras in the film. “Those faces look real,” Luna says.
Like the life of any great man, the labor leader’s stirs some debate, particularly in reference to his later years. Luna, though, wasn’t out to turn him into a saint. His aim was to tell an “intimate and personal story,” including Chavez’s difficult relationship with his eldest son. He hopes people will connect with and see how his story is still relevant today.
Luna says his most difficult task was to compress those 10 years into a 101-minute film and that it was impossible to include many important figures of the movement.
“There are many people still around and fighting. Many of them are very active,” he says. “You don’t want to disappoint anybody, but you know, you lose your voice by trying to please everyone.”
Chavez was born in 1927 in Arizona. When he was 10 his family lost their small farm and moved to California. They traveled from farm to farm for work until finally settling in the San Joaquin Valley. Chavez dropped out of school in the eighth grade and joined the Navy at 17. When he got out, he married his high school sweetheart, Helen Favela. In the early 1950s, a priest, Father Donald McDonnell, introduced the future labor leader to the writings of St. Francis and Mahatma Gandhi, inspiring him to be a force for positive change.
“You know what I love is that Cesar was so far away from the stereotype of a Latino and of a Mexican-American,” Luna says. “You can’t portray Cesar with a huge sombrero, a glass of tequila and eating burritos. He was a vegetarian and a Catholic, but he meditated in the morning, did yoga, liked jazz and read Gandhi. There’s an interesting complexity to him.”
The director adds that Chavez felt insecure in front of microphones and was not a great speaker; so he didn’t seem a likely leader. On the other hand, he was known for his organizing abilities and would go house to house to hear from the farmworkers. “He was about giving people confidence that change was in their hands,” Luna says. “Like many said, he was about listening.”
Of course, having a central character like say, Muhammad Ali, a brash talker, is dramatically easier to portray. To play Chavez, Luna cast Peña, whose own parents were farmworkers in Mexico before emigrating to the Midwest.
Born in Chicago, the 38-year-old actor did not know much about the labor leader until taking on the role. “He wasn’t a born charismatic leader,” notes Peña, whose Hollywood breakthrough came in 2004 with prominent roles in “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash.”
“So for Cesar, it probably took a lot more courage to do what he did,” he adds. “He did what had to be done, and I thought that took true courage.”
MOVE TO ACTIVISM
What Chavez did that was revolutionary was redefine the farmworkers’ struggle. After years of picket lines and strikes that yielded little progress, he moved the focus from the fields to the consumers by urging the national boycott of grapes. That way, the American public began to recognize that there were people toiling in abysmal conditions to provide their food.
“The farmworkers would get out of their communities and go talk to people,” Luna says. “Mothers would talk to other mothers, telling them behind those grapes there is my 6-year-old who can’t go to school.”
What had started as union organizing became known as La Causa. When some members of the group began using aggressive tactics in 1968, Chavez began a fast (the first of several in his lifetime) to recommit the movement to nonviolence. When Robert F. Kennedy, who was running for president at the time, visited Chavez in his weakened condition, it focused even more attention on the cause.
“It was crazy for an entire nation to join this fight with these Mexicans working in Delano,” notes Peña. Both the actor and director say it was helpful to get to know many of the people who were involved in the movement, many of whom are still active in the cause today including Helen Chavez and Dolores Huerta, both now in their 80s.
“It’s interesting, they’re a humble bunch,” says Peña, who remembers how when he first came to Los Angeles in his late teens to pursue acting, many people he met would talk about who their parents were. “Chavez’s kids are the exact opposite. They feel lucky and very humble, and I really got a sense of who Cesar really was.”
While the recent Los Angeles premiere and White House screening of the film were exciting for him, what Luna was most concerned about was Helen Chavez’s reaction when she saw the movie.
“She knows about the Cesar that you can’t know from history books, what happens in those moments between what history tells us,” he says. “And when she came to me afterward and said, ‘You got it right,’ I had my first good night of sleep after years of working on this film.”
With issues like immigration and better wages still on the table, so to speak, the filmmakers are hoping the movie is not merely a history lesson or another memorial to the man. Luna screened the film for 1,000 farmworkers Tuesday in Delano.
No one is using the word “organize” in connection with “Cesar Chavez,” but as Pena observes, “The film opens up debates to a lot of subjects.”
Reach the author at rob.lowman@roblowman1.