By: Marci Luna, Joanie López, and Francisco Beltrán ∞
Diego Luna’s film César Chávez brings to life the story of the late Mexican-American farmworker organizer to the big screen. The latest film to touch on the social justice period of the 1960s and 1970s, Luna focuses of many aspects of Chávez’s life: César Chávez the activist and labor organizer, César Chávez the father and family man, and César Chávez the human being. Michael Peña, who played Sal Castro in the 2006 film Walkout, a retelling of the 1968 East LA high school student walkouts, gave life to César Chávez. Peña was superb in his portrayal of Chávez, and was consistent from beginning to end. The film introduces César Chávez and Dolores Huerta to a new generation of Chicana/os and to a population who is still in the dark about what the farmworkers’ movement was and continues to represent.
The efforts by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta to organize farmworkers in California, a majority of them Mexican, situate Mexicans as historical subjects who are in control of their lives. César Chávez also reveals the incompleteness of the U.S. historical narrative. It challenges the one-dimensional perspective of traditional U.S. history, which has generally favored a Eurocentric and white point of view. The film moves the center of discussion toward the stories from the bottom, and exposes the injustices of regional and national power structures. Chávez and the farmworkers are presented as conscious actors of their time period, laborers and families fighting against work discrimination and racial injustice. Through their voices we are afforded a much more complete picture of how our past came to create our present. However, as good a counter-story as the film is, it also has its flaws and misses.
Though the film brings attention to the farmworkers’ movement, it could have benefited from a more thorough explanation of the conditions and aspirations of the farmworkers. In this film there was a clear gender divide. From a historical standpoint, Dolores Huerta was just as much a part of organizing the farm workers as Chávez. In the film however, her role did not adequately portray her importance in the movement. She was reduced to simply being there to support Chávez when in reality they were equally important organizers. Dolores Huerta’s role in the film did not do her justice. For starts she was acknowledged by Robert F. Kennedy for helping him win the 1968 California Democratic Presidential Primary just minutes before he got shot and killed. Huerta stood next to Senator Kennedy at the speaker’s platform that fateful night at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. This was not even mentioned in the film. That was a huge moment for the farmworkers’ movement because Kennedy had been a strong supporter of the UFW, and their movement was being broadcasted globally through the words and actions of Senator Kennedy. There was a clear role set for the women and the men in the film. For example, men were portrayed as being more proactive than the women in the movement, and we visibly uncomfortable with women as their equals. This was shown by the defiance of the men when women wanted to contribute to helping the cause. The film reduced the role of women to that of caretakers. It was interesting to see the dynamic shift when women in the film defied what the men wanted and joined the cause. The men and women of the farmworkers’ movement both fought and suffered equally. Unfortunately, this film did not fully show this important fact.
The film succeeded in bringing attention to César Chávez. It built somewhat of a foundation that will hopefully inspire other producers into making more films that will expand on this important chapter in our nation’s history. This film lacked important histories that were happening during the United Farm Workers movement, and that are important to discuss because they affected Chicana/os, Mexicana/os, Filipinos and other minorities who joined in solidarity for “La Causa.” The movie could’ve shown more of the inhumane acts that initiated the movement such as farmworkers having no bathroom breaks, growers not allowing their workers to drink water while working – which was something that not only César Chávez was fighting to change, but other movements too such as the walkouts in Los Angeles. Overall, the film did a good job of getting this important chapter in U.S. history out to the public. It could have done a better job explaining the reasons behind the farmworkers’ movement, including the cultural and gender tensions within the community. Unless you know well the history of the movement, after watching the film you come away with a very limited understanding of it. If this film was meant to educate the masses, it failed to live up to the hype. What we got was a Hollywood film, and like all Hollywood films, what it lacked in truth it made up in dramatization. Its shortcomings, however, should not detract you from watching César Chávez and learning a story that is being told to the world about some of the most important figures and moments in Chicana/o and U.S. history.