César Chávez: An American Legend Remembered

"We need a leader, not a martyr!" pleads the brother of beloved labor leader César Chávez in a memorable scene from the film of the same name. The farmworker movement, largely attributed to Chávez and the United Farmworkers Union (UFW), was at a critical juncture in its development when, in 1988, the leader goes on a 36-day fast to call attention to deplorable working conditions and to emphasize the importance of non-violent tactics.

César Chávez, directed by Diego Luna, opened in major theaters on March 28th.

Leader or martyr? Many of us believe César Chávez to be both, which has elevated him to iconic status. He was also a visionary, humble servant and, as the film portrays in a compelling subplot, a caring father. As a Chicano activist, who spent many hours in the early '70s manning picket lines in support of the UFW's boycott of non-union grapes and lettuce, and who also welcomed Chávez into his home, the man looms larger than life in mine. And, yet, we know that biographic films can prove troublesome because they sometimes tend to glorify the subject in ways that are schmaltzy and sometimes error-prone. I think the film got it mostly right. I found it to be a well-crafted, straightforward account of his life's work.

However, there is one aspect that troubled me. We know that Filipino farmworkers were the first to organize, and that Chávez really depended on them to start and build the UFW. Without Filipino audacity and commitment, some argue, Chávez would not have been successful. And, while there is a role for Larry Itliong, one of the most prominent Filipino UFW leaders (played by Darion Basco), the film simply doesn't do justice to the Filipino role in the farmworker movement, nor do we get a feel for how they lived side-by-side with Mexican and Chicano farmworkers. Notably, the film doesn't mention Philip Vera Cruz, another Filipino leader who was a Vice President of the UFW, but resigned when Chávez accepted, for unfathomable reasons, an invitation to visit the Philippines by the detested and widely condemned dictator Ferdinand Marcos. I have a portrait of Vera Cruz hanging in my home, so I can't hide my disappointment. Like Chávez, filmmaker Luna made some mistakes.

"We don't negotiate with children," snipes the scion of the Bogdonovitch family, during a dinner meeting with other big growers, emphatically disagreeing with the proposal to bargain with the UFW. Played elegantly by John Malkovich, the senior Bogdonovitch represents the kind of racist-inspired and mean-spirited corporate avarice that would eventually backfire and force a key cadre of growers to negotiate a settlement with the UFW. While it is important to celebrate just labor victories, it is also critical to recognize that Bognonovitch represents a previous incarnation of today's corporate archetype who too often colludes with others to export jobs, secure lower labor costs, oppose labor organizing, and otherwise ensure worker exploitation and higher profits. The film depicts a gleeful Chávez tossing a box of Bogdonovitch grapes into the River Thames after he successfully wins British labor union support for the UFW's cause, precipitating colluding California farmers to finally sit down at the bargaining table, much to the chagrin of then-Governor, Ronald Reagan, who is interviewed in the film, calling the UFW huelga (strike) "immoral."

And, the struggle continues. An article in The New York Times, published the same weekend as the film's release, details California growers' boiling impatience with Congress' failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform. They are concerned not because they have suddenly become bleeding heart liberals -- on the contrary -- most are died-in-the-wool conservative Republicans. They are up in arms because reform is necessary to secure a consistent labor pool, which is critical to achieving their profit margins. As reported, powerful grower associations are actually threatening to withhold financial support for key Republican candidates unless they change their tunes. We'll see how effective this strategy is in turning the political tide.

The film produces plenty of emotional swings -- for me -- no more heartfelt than the series of interactions with his eldest son, who bears the brunt of high school harassment, attributable to his father's high profile and demonization by the controlling powers that be. He is also resentful of his father's long absences and apparent indifference. Despite Chávez's concerted efforts, estrangement occurs, but one, especially a father of grown children like me, is left hopeful, and a tearful mess, when we see the son reading a thoughtful and soulful letter of amends from his hero father. It is this depiction of Chávez as a fallible human figure that makes the film all the more powerful and successful.

Several years ago, the U.S. Postal Service produced a commemorative César Chávez stamp. I think I cleaned out my local post office of this stamp issue on more than one occasion. I also regularly wear a lapel pin bearing the same likeness of the dear and modestly powerful man who inspired a generation. I am thankful to all who have now brought this important American story to local movie screens, thankful that they have reminded us of the endearing importance of just causes and of our responsibility to do our best to support them.

César Chávez is a must-see experience.