Watch: Cesar Chavez
Directed by Diego Luna (Lionsgate, 2014)
If you’re old enough to remember the United Farm Workers (UFW) grape boycotts that began in 1965, stretching intermittently across the years until 2000, you probably already know who Cesar Chavez is. Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez: An American Hero introduces Chavez and the UFW to a new generation of moviegoers.
Starring Michael Pena as Chavez, America Ferrera as his wife, Helen, and Rosario Dawson as UFW cofounder Dolores Huerta, the film depicts the birth of the UFW in 1962 through its early years. Farmworkers were—and still are—largely excluded from federal laws protecting employees. But this doesn’t stop Chavez and Huerta from urging their largely Latino farmworker group to join with Filipino grape pickers in California’s San Joaquin Valley who had gone on strike for higher wages, clean water, and portable toilets. The UFW calls for a boycott of grapes from Delano, California, which spreads nationwide and even to Europe.
John Malkovich does his evil best as grower John Bogdanovich, a European immigrant grower who enlists help from California Gov. Ronald Reagan and other heavyweights to defeat the strike. We see the key intervention of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who challenged law enforcement’s heavy-handed tactics with strikers and who brought vital support to the farmworkers’ movement. The film clearly links Chavez’s commitment to nonviolence and the actions of the strikers to their Catholic faith. A subplot shows the cost to Chavez’s family, especially his oldest son, who feels his father has time for everyone but him.
I admired the title chosen for the film during this time of struggle over immigration reform. Chavez, a U.S. citizen, might not be someone who leaps to mind when “American heroes” are mentioned. Now why would that be?
This article appeared in the July 2014  issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 7, page 42).