The new film Cesar Chavez puts on display a compelling account of a particular time in the history of Mexican-Americans’ experience in the state of California. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a global surge in progressive politics, and in California- as one might expect- this surge was especially profound. The social change was affecting people all over the globe from a variety of social perspectives, and in California, one of those affected perspectives was that of the migrant farm worker- one of if not the most undignified and oppressed of all. This film puts great emphasis on the role Cesar Chavez, portrayed by Michael Pena, played in the organization of farm workers against the powerful and wealthy growers and the California state and national politicians.
Cesar Chavez is displayed in the role of courageous and inspired leader, martyr, and fallible father. In turn, the roles of Chavez’s counterpart Dolores Huerta is downplayed, demoting her essentially to the role of secretary. In various scenes, Huerta answers important phone calls and passes the message along to Chavez or another male union leader.
The film is also hard on two major political figures, namely Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Nixon and Reagan are exposed as anti-unionist politicians in real film footage. Reagan, then Governor of California, is shown eating grapes in the midst of the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott as he says the boycott is “immoral.” Nixon plays an active role in the film, as the growers are shown having an intimate relationship with him in an effort to break the boycott. Nixon assists the growers in shipping their grapes to Europe for sale and having the rest bought by the Department of Defense to be fed to soldiers. As we know, all this is in vain as the United Farm Workers prevail in their fight for negotiating and organizing rights. One major move in this effort comes when Chavez makes a trip to London to plead for a boycott of these Californian grapes there, too. As the film shows, labor unions in England joined in solidarity with the UFW, even the dock workers union refused to unload grapes from ships. This was all something I had absolutely no knowledge of and it is something I find to be especially remarkable.
This film also briefly describes possibly the most challenging hurdle to breaking the power of the growers which was the selective enforcement of immigration. When it was in the interest of the rich and powerful, immigration may be enforced through deportations, but as the film showed, growers were not shy about recruiting “illegals” (undocumented immigrants) from Mexico to come work their fields and pick their fruits. This posed a serious threat to the solidarity of the UFW, because in the midst of their strike (“HUELGA!”), new labor was imported from Mexico to keep the farms running. Huerta (played by Rosario Dawson) is shown pleading with these workers to join the movement and “not to betray their people” by continuing to work the fields for the growers. Obviously, this is a difficult choice: these people are vulnerable to coercion due to their poverty and oppression, including illiteracy and their undocumented status. This provides a clear example of the necessity for comprehensive immigration reform as the wealthy find it easy to import a vulnerable and exploitable labor force. Through selective border enforcement, the wealthy can easily undermine the values of the Bill of Rights by bringing in people whose rights are lost in a grey area and who are dependant upon meager wages, which may be the only wages they are able to earn.
In the end, we see that the UFW is ultimately successful in their quest for a fair deal with the growers and later was successful in earning the right for all farm workers to collectively bargain, which was previously denied them. The film is inspiring. The film tugged at my own heart strings in nearly every scene. I do find a problem with the down-playing of Huerta’s role and I do find Dawson’s call for a film focusing solely on Huerta’s role in the struggle to be completely legitimate. I hope this call is answered.
This film shows a wide variety of issues. From politicians pandering to the wealthy, to undignified treatment of farm workers, to being a labor organizer and a father at the same time, to an international boycott, to making class ties across ethnic boundaries, this film covers so much in this iconic time in Cesar Chavez’s life and in California’s history. Still, the film is problematic in some respects, as is the case in the minimalist portrayal of Dolores Huerta and the Filipino labor organizer Larry Itliong.
I give the film a rating of 4 of 5 stars. It was released on March 28 and is in theaters now. Celebrate Cesar Chavez Day, March 31, by seeing this film!