While talking to reporters about his new film, “Cesar Chávez: An American Hero,” director Diego Luna said that his inspiration for the project is deeply personal. “My first son was born in Los Angeles; he’s a Mexican-American. I wanted my son to look at a film and see where he comes from,” the actor-turned-director told The Boston Globe. “I was shocked that there had not been a movie about Cesar Chávez.”
Luna’s feature film will undoubtedly re-introduce Chávez’s story to new generation of mainstream moviegoers. The film focuses on his work as co-founder and leader of the United Farm Workers (UFW), the first group to ever unionize California’s mostly Mexican and Filipino farmworkers. It stars Michael Peña as Chavez alongside Hollywood heavyweights America Ferrera, who plays Chavez’s wife, Helen, and Rosario Dawson, who stars as his trusted ally Dolores Huerta. The film is an important step in cementing Chávez’s legacy as an American civil rights hero, but, like many biopics, it offers a sanitized version of a deeply complicated man and movement. In a critique of the film, Inkoo Kang wrote at the Miami New Times:
Luna’s Chávez isn’t a man of contradictions. Nor is he a man of action. He merely suffers: beatings by angry white farm owners, unkind words from an increasingly rebellious Chato, agony from spectacular protests such as a 25-day fast and a 300-mile march. The film doesn’t seek admiration for his deeds or his force of will, only sympathy for enduring the kind of physical pain the Jackass crew used to undergo every week for MTV.
To that end, it’s important to remember that every movement is larger than any one man. Arturo Rodriguez, current leader of the UFW, says that the union has received a tremendous response to the film that he hopes will translate into action. “We hope that a new generation of folks are educated about the lives of farmworkers back then, and the risks that were associated with starting a union that’s still around 50 years later,” he says.
Below are images of Chávez and the men, women and children he helped organize through the UFW. All photographs are courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library Photo Archive at Wayne State University.
Cesar Chavez and his “Huelga” car taken during the Delano Grape Strike at J.D. Marlin Ranch in Tulare County, Calif., 1965. The strike lasted more than five years and, at its height, involved more than 17 million Americans who refused to purchase grapes from California growers who would not bargain with their workers.
A performance of El Teatro Campesino, the cultural arm of the UFW, featuring Don Sacato, location unknown. (Photograph by John A. Kouns, 1966)
Child holding picket sign in front of Raley’s Market during the grape boycott, Sacramento, California, 1968.
Supporters of the grape boycott demonstrate in Toronto, December, 1968.
Jessica Govea, one of the union’s most powerful organizers, is in the center, front row. (Photograph by The Hamilton Spectator)
Helen and Ceasar Chavez with their six children, location unknown, California. 1969.
Supporters of the UFW gather in the fields outside of the Paso Ranch to wave flags during a strike. (Photograph by Cris Sanchez, May, 1973)
Carlos Fierros, a UFW member, is arrested for violating a grower injunction that prohibited farm workers from walking off of the fields in protest, at Bagdosaria Ranch, Coachella Valley, California, March 24, 1974.
Nagi Kobatte, a participant in a peaceful picket line, is seen here after being beaten by a Teamster, near Lamont, Calif., 1973. California growers enlisted Teamsters, many of whom were working class and white, as the conservative alternative to unionizing efforts led by Mexican and Filipino farmworkers. (Photograph by Cris Sanchez)
A female striker holds a UFW eagle flag and covers her face to hide her identity during the 1974 San Luis strike, Ariz. (Photograph by Ben Garza)
Dolores Huerta at a rally in Oxnard, Calif. in 1976.