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In 'Cesar Chavez,' A Reluctant Hero Fights For 'La Causa'

Michael Peña plays Cesar Chavez in the film about the activist.
Courtesy of Lionsgate
Michael Peña plays Cesar Chavez in the film about the activist.

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."

Cesar Chavez (as played by Peña) emerges from his 25-day fast.
/ Courtesy of Lionsgate
Courtesy of Lionsgate
Cesar Chavez (as played by Peña) emerges from his 25-day fast.

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."

America Ferrera plays Helen Chavez, who in the film gets arrested for screaming <em>Huelga</em> (strike).
/ Courtesy of Lionsgate
Courtesy of Lionsgate
America Ferrera plays Helen Chavez, who in the film gets arrested for screaming Huelga (strike).

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.

Dolores Huerta, now 83, co-founded the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez.
Mandalit del Barco / NPR
Dolores Huerta, now 83, co-founded the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.