Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., April 7, 8 or 9
Now the film “Cesar Chavez, An American Hero,” which opened in limited release on March 28, reminds us how this unassuming but dynamic personality led nonviolent demonstrations, marches, strikes and unprecedented global boycotts to achieves gains for farm workers – especially thousands of them in California, many of them temporary Mexican workers permitted to live and work in the United States in agriculture, but required to leave here if they stopped working.
Starring Michael Peña as César Chavez, America Ferrera as Helen Chavez and Rosario Dawson as UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, the movie also features actors Gabriel Mann and John Malkovich as two villains. Mann, who plays an abusive landowner, told the Los Angeles Times that he took the role because he felt it was a timely story that spoke to what happens when workers lack union protections. Malkovich said he agreed to the role because he admired director Diego Luna's previous films and also wanted to take part in telling an important story about fairness.
Fairness was a goal for the temporary workers – “braceros” – who suffer from lousy working conditions plus racism and brutality at the hands of the employers and some locals, and the movie touches on several UFW campaigns: the Delano grape strike, the Salad Bowl strike, and the 1975 Modesto march.
The motion picture is “the first major motion picture about an icon for Latinos in the United States,” Luna said. “Yet by genuinely portraying Cesar Chavez as a hero for all Americans, it also tells a story every American should see.”
The movie is building an audience. Opening in just 664 U.S. theaters, “Cesar Chavez” reported $2.8 million over its three-day opening weekend, averaging $4,310 per screen, according to Deadline Hollywood’s box-office report. For comparison, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action film “Sabotage,” released to four times as many screens the same weekend, generated less than half as much box office receipts per screen – $2,121.
Chavez, who died in 1993, was a significant public figure. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, with the Catholic Church’s Pacem in Terris ("Peace on Earth") tribute, and the cover of Time magazine decades ago.
That significance also touched people who worked with him.
In downstate Illinois, State Sen. David Koehler (D-Peoria) is one of many alumni from Chavez’ and the UFW movement. In the 1970s, Koehler was a recently ordained pastor working with the UFW in Arizona, Ohio, California and New York. Koehler – who moved to Illinois to be a community organizer for Peoria’s Friendship House, then a County Board member, City Councilman and director of the Peoria Area Labor Management Council until his 2006 election to the Statehouse – acknowledges the UFW.
“One thing I learned in my time with the Farm Workers, and still hold dear, is the ongoing spirit of ‘si se puede’,” he said.
Familiar now after having been appropriated by Barack Obama as a campaign slogan, “si se puede” was the UFW’s battle cry: “Yes, we can.”
Besides the movie, Chavez and his efforts are recounted in “Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, The UFW, and The Struggle for Justice in The 21st Century,” published by the University of California Press six years ago. Part history and part guide, the 347-page book by Randy Shaw tracks how from the UFW’s 1962 inception, individuals armed with energy, determination and savvy methods changed workers’ lives and also their own.
Innovation and openness helped – along with Chavez’ reinvigoration of labor’s small-D democratic roots and the branches fed by coalition-building. Chavez enlisted the aid of labor stalwarts such as United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther and International Longshoremen head James Herman to expand their presence from farm fields to supermarkets. (Dockworkers refused to unload goods affected by the UFW’s disputes with growers.)
UFW was a school for activists, mirroring what Civil Rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had done in the 1960s. Chavez and the group of idealists he marshaled against overwhelming odds still offer lessons and provide examples we can appreciate, in memory and conversation, on the printed page, and now on the big screen.
[PICTURED: Left to right: Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King and Dorothy Day at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in 1973. Photo by Chris Sheridan of Catholic News Service. Marquette University Archives.]