Thanks to the good folks at AARP-Texas, I had the opportunity to enjoy an advanced screening of Cesar Chavez, the biopic about the late Labor and Civil Rights organizer and leader.
Given the various stories about Chavez, I didn’t know what to expect from Director Diego Luna and his crew. What I got was a fast-paced journey through the beginnings of Chavez’s organizing of farmworkers in the California fields, including coalition building with Filipino farmworkers, the founding of the United Farm Workers, and on through the five-year boycott of grape growing companies. The film portrays Chavez, as he was, rather than as some superhero–always humble, always working, and always risking, yet flawed like anyone else.
Michael Peña gives a strong performance as the title character, as does America Ferrera as Chavez’s wife, Helen. While Chavez is portrayed as the leader, it is Helen, among others, who are portrayed as the foundation on which Chavez stood up against the growers. Overall, it was a good ensemble, with good performances by John Malkovich, Jacob Vargas, Yancey Arias, and, of course, Rosario Dawson. Much credit should go to Luna for some good attempts at recreating important aspects of the movement.
What was not recreated was actual film of Ronald Reagan, governor of California at the time, doing his part to break the strike through a public relations campaign which included calling the strikers “immoral” and eating grapes while being filmed by news outlets. I still don’t understand that 80s “Decade of the Hispanic” bull that was promoted by the Reaganites. The devil is always the devil.
As much as the film is about Chavez, some strong political statements are made about those in charge at the time who would want to destroy the farmworker movement. Also given his due on the positive side is Bobby Kennedy.
The film also lightly covers a topic some use to darken the legacy of Cesar Chavez–his feelings toward undocumented labor. Low-wage immigrant workers who weren’t demanding worker rights back then were easy to exploit and industries of today have learned much from farmers and growers of that time. Chavez was fighting to protect all workers at the time, which made him an easy target in the right-wing “divide and conquer” strategy.
Unfortunately, the film said little about the fact that these movements still continue today. While some actual Chavez footage at the end of the film is utilized in which he speaks to the plight of the poor, a strong message could have been delivered that these struggles still continue in the form of health care reform, minimum wage increases, college for everyone, etc. We are left to figure it out on our own, or, perhaps that was the intent.
Then again, I’m not Diego Luna working on deadlines and a time frame in which to make a biography as sincere as possible. There will be criticism from activists who were there or folks wanting more, but the bottom line, there is only so much one can put into a movie before it loses an audience. The actual story is saved for textbooks and biographies. Otherwise, I truly enjoyed the film.
Chavez also serves as a reminder that this stuff isn’t being taught to our K-12 kids here in Texas, along with other aspects of Mexican American Studies.
The Texas State Board of Education is set to vote in early April on including Mexican American Studies in the state curriculum. Unfortunately, those who are iffy or possibly against the proposal are all Republicans and at least three more are needed to pass the proposal. Let’s give them a call and ask them to support Mexican American Studies at their next meeting on April 9.
At least one Republican on the SBOE, however, appears to support the idea. Vice chairman Thomas Ratliff told The Texas Tribune in February: “Some of [the board members] are trying to say that they don’t want to start creating a whole bunch of other studies for every other ethnic group. I don’t understand that concern because there aren’t any other ethnic groups that make up a significant portion of the state’s population like the Hispanics do.”
Houston: Call Donna Bahorich at 832.303.9091
Woodlands: Call Barbara Cargill at 512.463.9007
San Antonio: Call Ken Mercer at 512.463.9007
Ft. Worth: Call Patricia Hardy at 817.598.2968
Dallas: Call Geraldine Miller at 972.419.4000 or email@example.com
Waco: Call Sue Melton-Melone at 254.749.0415 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Amarillo: Call Marty Rowley at 806.373.6278 or email@example.com
General e-mails in support of the proposal may also be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org