In 'Cesar Chavez,' A Reluctant Hero Fights For 'La Causa'
Cesar Chavez, the late farmworker advocate and union activist, remains one of the most well-known Latino leaders. He inspired the Chicano movement in the 1960s and '70s, and is depicted in countless murals throughout the West.
There are schools, streets and libraries named after him. There's a movement to make his birthday, March 31, a national day of service. And now, Chavez is being celebrated in a new feature film that opens Friday.
The movie, which bears the activist's name, focuses on the 1960s, when Chavez started the United Farm Workers union. He got arrested, led marches and pilgrimages, went on a 25-day fast and convinced millions of Americans to boycott grapes. His nonviolent tactics led to better wages and working conditions for farmworkers.
Michael Peña, who plays the title role, is Mexican-American, born in Chicago to farmworker parents who emigrated from Mexico.
"We had to fight that instinct to make it super Hollywood, and tell that story the way it is," Pena says. "So we focused a lot on what he gave up as well. He gave up a lot of time with his family, and he loved his kids."
By all accounts, Chavez was a reluctant hero with brilliant organizing strategies.
Miriam Pawel, author of a new biography of Chavez called The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, says his union was able to win the right for farmworkers to have accessible bathrooms, fresh, free drinking water, and limited exposure to pesticides. Pawel says Chavez also was able to give "a much more intangible issue: empowering people who had felt utterly on the margins of the world."
Uniting with Filipino farmworkers, Chavez was able to do what no one before had been able to successfully do: Organize a union for farmworkers.
"He didn't have money; he just, nonetheless, after work went door to door to door, canvassing the workers, getting support for a union. And he did it for years," recalls 86-year-old writer Peter Matthiessen, who also wrote a biography about Chavez.
Matthiessen met Chavez in 1968. He says the activist captured the attention of everyone from Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to Time magazine, and took on California's powerful agriculture industry.
"He was shot at a couple of times. And the workers ... they first saw he had a lovely speaking voice," Matthiessen says. "And he was very smart, and very good looking ... and humorous, you know, he loved to laugh. But he was tough and very religious."
Film director Diego Luna, who's known for his roles in Y Tu Mamá También and Milk, says he loved those complexities and tried to portray them in the movie. "I was very careful not to portray a saint that is unreachable," he says. "He was a simple man who did an extraordinary thing."
To capture the look of California fields in the 1960s, Luna shot the film in Sonora, Mexico. He says he also had to cross the border to get most of the financing from Mexican investors.
"No one wanted to pay for this film here. It wasn't, as they say, 'sexy' enough," Luna recalls. "I remember they asked me if Antonio Banderas could have played Cesar Chavez, and I was like, it wouldn't be right. Come on! We're talking about the Mexican-American experience."
The movie is ultimately the family's story. It spotlights Chavez's wife, Helen, struggling alongside him. America Ferrera, who plays Helen in the film, spent time getting to know her for the role.
"She's very publicity shy," says Ferrera, "but it was so valuable to be in her presence and experience the strength that emanates from her. The kind of still and quiet fortitude, and at the same time she's incredibly warm and wears her heart on her sleeve."
The film also spends a lot of time portraying the strained relationship Chavez had with his oldest son, Fernando, now a successful trial lawyer in Los Angeles.
"Obviously, there has to be a few changes for the movie," Fernando Chavez says. "But it was very accurate, and I think it serves to humanize him."
A few days before the nationwide opening, there was a screening at the White House and another for thousands of farmworkers from all over California, who watched an outdoor screening of the Spanish-dubbed version in Delano, Calif., where Chavez went on his first fast, and where the first UFW contracts with the growers were signed.
On the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere, Chavez's son Paul says his father probably would have been uncomfortable with all the attention the film is bringing. But he admitted this has been the best publicity for la causa, the cause, in a long time.
Paul Chavez now runs the Cesar Chavez Foundation, in Keene, Calif. He says the family had a lot of input into the screenplay. For every draft, they sent back hundreds of pages of comments.
"We had to learn in this process that we were not storytellers," Paul Chavez says. "The way we tell stories tends to be pretty linear: It started here, this happened and this, and it would bore the heck out of people. So we had to make sure the essence of my dad and the struggle was captured."
Cesar Chavez co-founded the United Farm Workers union with Dolores Huerta (played by Rosario Dawson). She was a young Chicana lawyer and single mother of eight children at the time (she has 11 children in all).
At 83, Huerta is still very active with her own grass-roots organization, working on issues of education and, lately, signing up Latinos for the Affordable Care Act.
Huerta says the movie conflates a few events and plays down her role in the movement.
"I did the negotiations in the union, and in the film they have the attorney doing the negotiations. I'm the one who came up with Sí se puede," she says, "And of course in the movie, they have Cesar saying Sí se puede. But it's all good, it's all good. Because it's an important story, and the people will be inspired, and we know we have so much work to do."
At the Hollywood premiere, Huerta urged the audience to organize around watching the film, and to live up to Chavez' legacy of activism:
"It's not just about remembering him, it's about doing what he wanted us to do," Huerta said, before getting the crowd to repeat "Viva Chavez." And she led the audience in a hearty round of her union chant: Sí se puede.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Cesar Chavez remains one of the best known Latino figures in the U.S. more than 20 years after his death. The farm worker, advocate and labor activist inspired the Chicano movement of the '60s and '70s. He is depicted in murals throughout the West. There are schools, streets and libraries named after him, and now a new film opening in theaters today.
NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The movie focuses on the 1960s, when Cesar Chavez started the United Farm Workers Union. He gets arrested, leads marches and pilgrimages, goes on a 25 day fast, and convinces millions of Americans to boycott grapes over unfair wages and poor working conditions for farm workers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CESAR CHAVEZ")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MICHAEL PENA: (as Cesar Chavez) They're the poorest of the poor, the marginalized. The ones who've been ignored
(as Cesar Chavez) There would be no food on the table without these people.
(as Cesar Chavez) These people have names, faces, families.
BARCO: That's actor Michael Pena, who plays the title role in "Cesar Chavez."
PENA: He was a very humble, quiet man, you know, strong as he was. But he wasn't like the most charismatic speaker. You know, we had to fight that instinct to make it super-Hollywood, to make sure we told his story. You know, because if this was a Hollywood movie, they would bring in a team of writers to re-write his speeches. You know what I need? So like we focused a lot on what he gave up as well. He gave up a lot of time with his family and he loved his kids.
BARCO: Pena himself is Mexican-American, born in Chicago to farm worker parents who emigrated from Mexico. By all accounts his character was a reluctant hero with brilliant organizing strategies.
PETER MATTIESSEN: He didn't have money, nonetheless after work he went from door to door to door, canvassing the workers, getting support for a union. And he did it for years.
BARCO: Eighty-six-year-old writer Peter Matthiessen met Chavez in 1968 and eventually wrote a biography about him. He says the nonviolent activist captured the attention of everyone from Senator Bobby Kennedy to Time magazine. And Chavez took on California's powerful agriculture industry.
MATTIESSEN: It became finally very dangerous for him. He was shot at, you know, a couple of times. And the workers saw that, they first saw - he had a lovely speaking voice and was very smart and very good looking, very handsome - and humorous. You know, he loved to laugh. But he was tough and very religious.
DIEGO LUNA: I was very careful not to portray a saint that is unreachable.
BARCO: Diego Luna directed the film. The 35-year-old is best known as an actor for roles in such films as "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Milk." To capture the look of California fields in the 1960s, Luna shot the film in Sonora, Mexico. He says he also had to cross the border to get most of the financing from Mexican investors.
LUNA: No one wanted to pay for this film here. You know, it wasn't, as they say, sexy enough, you know. I remember they asked me if Antonio Banderas could have played Cesar Chavez, and I was like, it wouldn't be right, you know, come on. We're talking about the Mexican-American experience.
BARCO: With so many people still around from Chavez's time, Luna says he knew Pena's performance and the entire film would be scrutinized.
LUNA: So with a character like this, I know Michael, the pressure of playing Cesar Chavez is huge. It's huge. So I always wanted to tell him: Man, if things go wrong, they're going to kill me, not you. Don't worry.
BARCO: The movie is ultimately the family's story. It spotlights Chavez's wife Helen struggling alongside him - played by actress America Ferrera. And the film spends a lot of time portraying the strained relationship Chavez had with his oldest son, Fernando. He's now a successful trial lawyer.
FERNANDO CHAVEZ: I think it's accurate as it can be. I mean obviously there has to be a few changes for the movie, but it was very accurate. And I think it serves to humanize him.
BARCO: Chavez youngest son Paul says his father probably would have been uncomfortable with all the attention the film is bringing. Paul now runs the Cesar Chavez Foundation, in Keene, California, where his father lived and died. He says for years the family was very protective of their story, even turning down movie offers from the likes of Robert Redford.
PAUL CHAVEZ: There's been other attempts to produce movies by people who knew my dad and worked with him and loved him, but nothing ever came of it, and I think maybe because they were too close to the story and, you know, it was a difficult project. And so when Keir came, we were interested because we felt that it was time that the story be told.
BARCO: Paul Chavez is talking about screenwriter Keir Pearson, who impressed the family with his treatment of the film "Hotel Rwanda." But Chavez says they were a bit more skeptical at first about Diego Luna as director.
CHAVEZ: He didn't grow up knowing about this, he's Mexicano. And we were concerned about the tilt that it might have, a Mexicano telling a story that is really about a Mexican-American Chicano in the United States. And I was a little apprehensive when we met with him. And one of the things that impressed us - impressed me anyways, immediately- was that he came in asking a lot of questions and listening.
BARCO: Paul Chavez says the family had a lot of input into the screenplay. For every draft they sent back hundreds of pages of comments.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CESAR CHAVEZ")
PENA: We won the strike. We won. We won. Si se puede.
BARCO: Cesar Chavez co-founded the United Farm Workers Union with Dolores Huerta, a young Chicana lawyer and single mother of eight at the time. At 83, Huerta is still very active with her own grassroots organization. She says the movie conflates a few events and plays down her role in the movement.
DOLORES HUERTA: Some of it is a little wrong. I did the negotiations in the union and in the film they have the attorney doing the negotiations, you know, the guy's story. I'm the one who came up with Si Se Puede and of course in the movie they have Cesar saying Si Se Puede. But it's all good, it's all good. Because it's an important story and the people will be inspired, and we know we have so much work to do.
BARCO: At the Hollywood premiere, Heurta was greeted with wild applause when she stood onstage with the filmmakers.
BARCO: She urged the audience to organize around watching the film, and to live up to Cesar Chavez's legacy of activism.
HUERTA: It's not just about remembering him, it's about doing what he wanted us to do. Se puede. Se puede?
BARCO: Si Se Puede. It's a phrase even Barack Obama used in his first presidential campaign. It means: Yes, we can.
HUERTA: Viva, Chavez.
HUERTA: All right.
BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.