Jose Gaspar

Sunday, Mar 16 2014 07:00 PM

JOSE GASPAR: Cesar Chavez movie brings local history to the big screen

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    By Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian

    Californian contributing columnist Jose Gaspar.

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By Jose Gaspar

As my older brother and I approached the entrance to the supermarket that summer day in 1969, there were perhaps 10 or so men and women near the store's entrance with handwritten signs that read, "Boycott Jewel's" and "Justice for farmworkers" in big bold letters.

We had no idea what was happening or what was to come. My brother shrugged off the demonstrators. Though I was only 14, the incident piqued my curiosity. It was my introduction learned on the streets of Chicago about what was occurring in the fields of California and all over the southwest.

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Farmworkers were fighting for better working conditions and a right to unionize and have collective bargaining rights just as any other worker. Somehow, agricultural and domestic workers were specifically excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.

The man who would become the face of the farm labor movement in the U.S. was a Navy veteran born in 1927 in Yuma, Ariz., who eventually migrated to Delano. With no college degree and an eighth grade education, Cesar Chavez took on what at the time was a David and Goliath situation, unionizing a disenfranchised lot of Filipino and Latino farmworkers against powerful agribusiness.

Now the story comes to the big screen in a movie about the man who dedicated his life for more than just better wages for farmworkers.

To understand this story, it's really more about social justice. The film is titled simply "Cesar Chavez" and to be clear, this is not a review of the movie, so don't expect a one to five star rating. Film critic Roger Ebert I am not.

Mexican director Diego Luna was in charge of this biopic based on the life and times of Chavez and those closely associated with the farm labor movement. Michael Pena plays the lead role, America Ferrera plays Chavez's wife, Helen, and Rosario Dawson plays Dolores Huerta, the other iconic labor and civil rights leader as well as co-founder of what has become the United Farm Workers union.

When Chavez died in 1993, I recall thinking that one day someone would make a movie about him. Interestingly, now two films about Chavez are out this year.

Luna's film debuts nationwide on March 28. In January, the documentary "Cesar's Last Fast" made its screening at the Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews. But while the farmworkers labor movement is a perfect subject for documentaries, not everyone imagined a motion picture would be in the making.

"Never thought someone would make a picture about my dad," said Fernando Chavez, the eldest of the eight children of Cesar and Helen Chavez.

Cesar Chavez embodied qualities and embraced a philosophy of non-violence while farmworkers were getting beat-up, arrested, shot at and killed on the picket lines during those not too long ago turbulent years right here in the fields of Kern County and elsewhere.

Standing up to the powers-that-be put Chavez and the UFW under federal surveillance, as opponents lobbed accusations that the union was being directed by communists out to destroy the American way of life.

The FBI infiltrated the union and spied on the constitutionally protected right of labor organizing. Reading the FBI file is chilling, to say the least. One entry dated Oct. 8, 1965, reads that Chavez, "possibly has a subversive background." Other "anti-American" activity noted by J. Edgar Hoover's men was that, "Chavez had sought a job with the Peace Corps in 1961 but had been rejected."

The union's political foes must have been disappointed to learn that the FBI ultimately concluded that "No evidence of communist or subversive influence was ever developed."

Perhaps feeling guilty about spying on him, federal agents felt compelled to inform the union in the 1970s that two plots to assassinate Chavez had been uncovered.

But movies based on real events can be tricky. If true to form, the subjects portrayed are vulnerable to a public airing of just about everything in their lives, warts and all. Luna's film touches on the personal toll Chavez's work schedule took on his children, especially on his eldest, Fernando. His father being away so much created conflict. As a high school student at Delano High, Fernando resented that his father was not there at his baseball or basketball games.

"He would say, 'I wish I could be there, but I really can't.' It's hard to understand as a kid," said the eldest, who is now a practicing civil trial attorney. Nor was there time, it seemed, for a game of catch in the backyard. As many a working parent can attest, everything has a price.

Chavez died of natural causes in his sleep in San Luis, Ariz., not far from where he was born. I recall in covering his funeral that condolences came in from all over the world, including from then-Pope John Paul II. But not a word about his death came from the then-Kern County Board of Supervisors until days later, when a group of educators addressed the board.

The film will no doubt again trigger debate not just about Cesar Chavez, but about progress made in the fields for one of society's most under-protected classes. And that's a good thing, as farmworkers stand to be greatly impacted by whatever legislation is ultimately adopted by comprehensive immigration reform.

Chavez's longtime personal aide and press secretary, Marc Grossman, sums up the movie this way: "The movie captures the spirit, humanity and complexity of a man who taught ordinary people to do extraordinary things."

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