One day, at the age of 11, I started working in the fields, and that’s where I witnessed for the first time the injustice, and the indignities, suffered by the farm workers.”
These words are among the opening lines of the first biographical drama on César Chávez, directed by Diego Luna and starring Michael Peña.
“Cesar Chavez” will introduce many people to the history of the famous labor organizer. But like all American heroes’, Chávez’s story was thoroughly whitewashed before being presented to a younger, broader audience.
Chávez was born in Yuma, Arizona in 1927. During the aftermath of the Great Depression, his family moved to California, where Chávez worked as a farm laborer.
In 1952, Chávez was introduced to the Community Service Organization, where he learned to improve his leadership skills. 10 years later, Chávez started his own organization, soon to be known as the United Farm Workers (UFW).
UFW’s non-violent activism and nationwide grape boycott, as well Chávez’s famous 25 day fast in 1968, resulted in great gains for California grape workers in 1970, when grape growers in Delano County finally signed contracts with the union.
“Cesar Chavez” essentially begins in 1962 and ends in 1970. Because of this, one sees no depiction of the first 35 years of Chávez’s life and is basically left with a characterless movie.
Dolores Huerta does almost nothing except hang up the UFW office phone and tell her coworkers encouraging news.
Helen, Chávez’s wife, gets some interesting scenes (including one in which she flips to mom-with-baseball-bat mode) but only a few more lines than Huerta.
Only the rich white man character (whose name doesn’t matter) gets extra helpings of complexity.
Played by John Malkovich, the character is himself an immigrant who employs a Mexican maid in his home, and who acknowledges that Chávez’s strategic ability surpasses that of his own college-educated son.
The dearth of complexity in the film wasn’t due to lack of source material. Miriam Pawel’s unauthorized biography “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez” describes the labor leader’s life, including his early childhood in Yuma.
According to Pawel, Chávez’s mother “instilled in her children the importance of helping others and the need for personal sacrifice… She quoted dichos, or sayings, about not fighting and told them to just walk away from conflict.”
During meals, Chávez’s mother even went so far as to “cut food in equal portions for the children; if someone complained they got the small piece, she took the food away from all.”
It’s clear that Chávez’s mother inspired his thoughts on self-sacrifice and policy of non-violent protest, yet she is not present in the movie.
There was also a dictatorial side to Chávez that was only lightly touched upon in the film. Pawel wrote of an incident in which Chávez had “berated Huerta in public for the first time, ostensibly for her failures as a bookkeeper. He had planned the confrontation…”
According to Pawel, Chávez said, “I run the show and I don’t give a damn what you think or anyone thinks. I’m gonna run it the way I want to run it, and you don’t like it, too bad. Get out!”
Overall, the film is a decent introduction to César Chávez’s work. However, the labor organizer’s real life probably contains too many interesting details to contain in one movie.