“Cesar Chavez” stars Michael Peña, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson and John Malkovich. It tells the story of the co-founder of the United Farm Workers that led a grape boycott and organized a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento.
By Byron Morton/ OBRag
Cesar Chavez shows the political evolution and the struggles of the man behind the movement during the 1960s to organize the farm workers in California. Through the United Farm Workers (UFW) Chavez (played by Michael Peña) brings bargaining rights and dignity for the impoverished farm workers. The UFW motto during this time was “Sí, se puede” or yes, it is possible.
It is important to remember at that time in the 1960s the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 did not protect farm workers and others. The Act “is a foundational statute of US labor law which guarantees basic rights of private sector employees to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining for better terms and conditions at work, and take collective action including strikes if necessary.”
Not represented at that time by the 1935 Act were agricultural workers, domestic employees, supervisors, federal, state, or local governmental workers, independent contractors, and some close relatives of individual employees.
The film shows some pivotal episodes of Chavez’s activist life and interpersonal relationships. For example, Chavez and his son Fernando are distant emotionally.
Chavez’s voice is used as narrator sparingly through the film. His voice tells about his childhood years growing up poor. He was born in Yuma Arizona on March 31, 1927. Chavez’s early activism work with the Community Service Organization (CSO) was influential and motivated him.
“Chavez worked in the fields until 1952, when he became an organizer for Community Services Organization (CSO), a Latino civil rights group. He was hired and trained by Fred Ross as an organizer targeting police brutality. Chavez urged Mexican Americans to register and vote and he traveled throughout California and made speeches in support of workers rights. He later became the CSO’s national director in 1958.”
Chavez left the CSO in 1962 and formed an agricultural union with Delores Huerta called the National Farm Workers Association. It was later combined with the Filipino American Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to become the United Farm Workers (UFW).
With labor leader Phillip Vera Cruz, the Filipino American farm workers initiated the Delano grape strike of September 8, 1965, to protest for higher wages. And at some point, Chavez takes his family to Delano California to start the farm worker organizing.
The dialogue works well to move the narrative forward. It is especially poignant and thought provoking when Chavez, Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), and Chavez’s wife Helen Fabela Chavez (America Ferrara) are discussing breaking an injunction prohibiting the UFW from neither picketing nor using the slogan of the movement “Huelga” or strike.
In an emotionally charged scene, Helen Chavez refuses to obey the injunction. She refuses to cooperate and was willing to go to jail for her beliefs. Doleres Huerta backs her up.
Huerta’s importence to the movement is represented. She pushes Chavez to “take it to the next level,” especially during the grape boycott. She convinces the leadership of UFW to take direct actions like contacting shoppers, college students and religious groups to stop buying grapes and put economic pressure on the growers to sign a collective bargaining agreement with the workers. It took five years of direct actions to bring the growers to the table.
The brutality of the growers’ goons is shown. There is one scene in particular. Archival footage of Nixon being sworn in as president is inter-cut with the police attacking farm workers with batons.
Another poignant scene shows Chavez breaking his hunger strike in March 1968 followed by an impassioned speech by Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Holmes). And after Kennedy’s assassination three months later, Chavez faces a much chillier political climate when anti-union leaders like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon hold sway in the U.S.
Michael Brooks soundtrack is under-stated and evocative. One can feel the emotional direction of the story especially during the confrontational scenes. In one such scene, the Delano sheriff discovers that the U.F.W. has started a farm workers credit union. The soundtrack plays like the sounds of tightening piano strings.
The sheriff asks if the farm workers are “commies”. Chavez replies with laughter, “How can Catholics be communists?” The response confuses the sheriff.
John Malkovich plays the main grape grower who is determined to deter and smash the farm workers efforts to organize. Malkovich’s character understands that he has underestimated the movement when he is shown a cartoon depicting the antagonist grower as a monster trying to destroy a farm worker.
Malkovich realizes that even the illiterate can comprehend the struggle by relating to the cartoon, stating “you have to reach them by any means.” The UFW used campensino theater, live music and visual aids to get the union message out to the farm workers in the field.
Cesar Chavez is directed by 34 year old Mexican actor Diego Luna. He had staring roles in Y Tu Mamá También, Milk and Frida.
Various episodes of the historical struggle are depicted and inter-cut with archival footage. The film represents a convincing feature and vital narrative of a man who struggled for workers rights and dignity.
Go see Cesar Chavez…Sí, se puede!