The Neglected Heroines of ‘César Chávez’

In a myriad of ways, it was women who built the farmworker movement around Chu00e1vez, sustained it, and continue to lead its modern incarnation.

By Lori Flores Mar 31, 2014

Today would have been the late Mexican American labor leader César Chávez’s 87th birthday, and over the weekend the biopic "César Chávez: An American Hero" premiered nationwide. Directed by Diego Luna, the film stars Michael Peña in the title role, America Ferrera as his wife Helen, Rosario Dawson as union organizer Dolores Huerta, and John Malkovich as a grape grower loathe to negotiating with his employees.

Some have argued that the film indulges in hero worship and elides Chávez’s personal flaws that hindered the United Farm Workers union’s lasting success. Yet this truth lies outside the scope of the film, which focuses on the union’s beginnings in the 1960s and Chávez’s rise to international recognition. What the film does not indulge in, but should, are the stories of the women beside the man. In a myriad of ways, it was women who built the farmworker movement around Chávez, sustained it, and continue to lead its modern incarnation today.

Despite being its main female characters, neither Dawson, nor Ferrera has a dramatic entrance in the film or delivers powerful dialogue, save for the depiction of Helen Chávez’s arrest for shouting the prohibited Spanish term "Huelga!" (Strike!) on a picket line. The two women cross each other in scenes, sometimes exchanging a reassuring look or touch. In reality, their lives converged and diverged in interesting ways and shed light on the diversity of the Latina experience.

Though they had different upbringings, both women began working to empower Mexican-American communities as young adults. Born in Brawley, Calif., in 1928 to Mexican migrant parents, Helen Fabela began working in the fields at the age of 7. She met César in high school and married him soon after. While the two were living in San Jose, it was she who convinced César to join the grassroots Community Service Organization (CSO) led by Fred Ross. Through that leadership experience, César saw organizing farmworkers as his next calling. Helen was equally committed to civil rights and volunteered extensively for the CSO, handling administrative duties, registering voters and helping migrants obtain their citizenship.

Born only two years after Helen in Dawson, N.M., Dolores (Fernandez) Huerta experienced a more middle class adolescence and graduated from community college, a rare accomplishment for Mexican-American women in the 1950s. When a CSO chapter was founded in Stockton in 1955, Huerta registered voters, taught citizenship classes, and eventually became a paid legislative advocate for the organization in the state capitol. Rising in the organizational ranks, she met Chávez and eventually resigned from the CSO with him when the organization chose not to prioritize farmworker issues. Always flanking and advising César, Helen and Dolores had tremendous influence over him and the direction of their fledgling union.

A striking difference between the two women, however, was their respective approaches to motherhood. Both women had several children–Helen eight, Dolores 11–but while Chávez chose to make the home her focus, Huerta often left her children in the care of others for long periods of time while she directed strikes and boycotts in California and New York. This personal choice was often criticized–a common experience of other women activists throughout history who balanced politics with family–as was her forceful style at the negotiating table, which overturned white male growers’ racialized and gendered assumptions. "Dolores Huerta is crazy. She is a violent woman…Mexican women are usually peaceful and calm," one grower representative remarked.

Huerta might have been perceived as the opposite of the "traditional" Mexican woman, but when one considers Chávez–who externally conformed more to the figure of the nurturing mother–one sees that she was quite disobedient and strategic herself. She was arrested four times and through her demonstrations of protest as a farmworker, wife, and mother, she brought women who might have self-identified as wives, mothers or daughters more than activists into the farmworker movement, politicizing them in a more subtle fashion. Women became the lifeblood of the union as it built its profile. Hope Lopez directed boycott activities in Philadelphia, persuading East Coast housewives to boycott stores selling non-union grapes. Jessica Govea, who began working in the fields at four and joined the UFW as a teenager, forced the union to start advocating for farmworkers’ protection from harmful pesticides. She became the director of grape boycott operations in Montreal.

"César Chávez" ends on July 29, 1970, an important day in the struggle of grape workers. That same day, the UFW began its next fight against the corporate world of lettuce. Over 180 growers in California’s Salinas and Santa Maria Valleys decided to evade negotiations with Chávez by signing sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters union. When Chávez arrived in the Salinas Valley, he found men and women ready to fight. Lettuce workers had organized into strike committees and freseras, women strawberry workers, had brazenly converted their company-owned labor camps into makeshift fabricas de banderas (flag factories) to sew strike flags. Women of all ages stood on picket lines, and some suffered violence at the hands of Teamsters and anti-UFW protestors. At age 18 picketer Lupe Ortiz was punched in the mouth by a man in a moving car who tore away her union flag. Other women testified of being hurt in car chases and beatings. When Chávez defied a court-ordered picketing injunction at particular lettuce ranches, 15 women chose to get arrested with him. After a judge jailed Chávez for his actions, farmworkers’ wives held 24-hour vigils outside the prison and created public altars in the beds of pickup trucks adorned with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, candles, flowers, the Mexican and American flags, and pictures of Chávez, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Chávez only stayed a leader because he had a following, and women helped sustain that following by involving themselves and their families in the union, maintaining strikers’ morale when Chávez was absent, and risking their own safety and liberty because they could imagine a greater liberty. Women were not, to use a theatrical term, "extras" in the farmworker struggle–they were principal players. Today, the laboring conditions and wages of farmworkers have largely regressed to what they were in pre-UFW days. The farmworker movement continues, and women continue to lead it by speaking out for labor, migrant, and food justice and fighting against sexual harassment and rape in the fields, gender discrimination, and pesticide use.

The secondary theme of "César Chávez" is that of the father-son relationship, paralleled in the lives of Chávez and Malkovich’s character. At several points various characters reference the concept of machismo and what it means to be a man protecting his dreams. If Rosario Dawson makes good on her wish to bring Dolores Huerta’s life to the silver screen, how might that future "heroine" film approach themes of gender and empowerment and what it means to be a woman protecting her dreams? How can we, and when will we, start moving women’s histories and activism from the margins to the center? Both in and out of Hollywood, pondering those questions would serve us well.

Lori Flores is assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, with a forthcoming book on the history of Mexican-Americans and the making of agricultural California.

*Post has been updated since publication.