“Chavez” surprises, inspires

This past weekend I went to see the new film on César Chávez by director Diego Luna. I had no idea what to expect and was even prepared to be disappointed at how the film might depict the best known Latino historical figure in the nation.

Chávez, of course, accomplished what had never been done before in the history of the United States, and that was to successfully organize farm workers in California, mostly of Mexican and Filipino descent. California historically has employed more farm workers than any other state.

I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the film very much. It is historically as accurate as a movie depiction of historical event can be, focusing on the five-year long strike by the Chávez-led United Farm Workers (UFW) that pressured the acceptance by key grape growers in the San Joaquin Valley of unionization and signed contracts with their workers, upgrading salary and working conditions.

Michael Peña, who plays Chávez, does so with much dignity and captures the inner strength of this remarkable leader. Chávez was not a great orator but led by his courage and commitment to La Causa, the cause of the farm workers’ struggle. He was also significantly guided by his deep Catholic spirituality, which the film captures by its images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the use of peregrinaciónes or Catholic pilgrimages instead of marches, and César’s use of fasting for his own spiritual purposes and -- as in his 25-day fast in 1968 -- to remind the farm workers of the centrality of nonviolence to their struggle. The film captures these connections. 

Chávez was a complex person and while the film does not show or explore all of these complexities, it does, through Peña’s fine acting, reveal enough of César’s persona to present a man of dignity and conviction. Indeed, all of the key actors do an excellent job of depicting, for example, Helen Chávez, César’s wife, and the fiery Dolores Huerta.

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The film is a homage to one of the great labor, civil rights, and spiritual leaders in American history, and there is nothing wrong with this. Americans of all ethnic backgrounds need to know who César Chávez was and of the struggles of Chicanos and other Latinos in the U.S. who have contributed so much to this country, and there’s nothing wrong with this. This film is a far cry from so many other Hollywood films that have shown Mexicans and other Latinos as bandits, drunks, gangbangers, and “illegal immigrants.”

It is refreshing to see a film that not only brings dignity to Chávez’s legacy but to that of all Latinos. And there is nothing wrong with this. Yes, Latinos need their historical heroes and there is nothing wrong with this. I urge my readers to go and see this fine film. You will leave the theater inspired as I was, and inspired to carry on the struggle for a more humane and just society.

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