Anyone who drives down California’s Highway 99 is familiar with the vast and alien tracts of farmland that constitute our state’s richly profitable agricultural industry. Portrayals of farming in popular film in the U.S. usually conjure up bucolic images of red barns, rows of corn, and warm, friendly farming families. However, agriculture in California largely skipped this yeoman farmer stage so ingrained in American mythology, and went straight to large-scale, one-crop agri-business on an industrial scale. Director Diego Luna sets his new film, Cesar Chavez, against the backdrop of this harsh, beautiful, and intimidating landscape.
Cesar Chavez tells the important details of the life of the inspiring hero of labor and social justice for Chicanos. The filmmakers also utilize care and attention to the labor movement and its history in the U.S. to create a detailed portrait of the birth of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union in Delano, Calif.
Farm work in California was a pitchblende of all the worst aspects of unorganized labor: child workers, long hours, starvation wages, and grim armed encampments, with no rest, water, shade, or bathrooms provided to pickers. Carey McWilliams’ Factories in the Field, published in 1935, describes the unique labor needs that an agricultural industry largely dominated by fruit cultivation required, and the tactic of the large growers in recruiting waves of workers of different nationalities so as to derail any nascent organization against the brutal conditions. Growers fostered racial animus between the workers, and this combined with their political hegemony in the towns, helped prevent the formation of a farm workers union until Cesar Chavez began his grassroots efforts nearly three decades after the passage of the Wagner Act.
The biopic begins by describing the sea change that the Wagner Act and the NLRB brought to workers during the worst throes of the Great Depression. A green light was given to laborers to organize in nearly every industry-but not for farm workers.
Chavez, portrayed by Michael Pena (Crash), realizes he and his wife Helen (America Ferrera) will have to leave the organizers office and move into the fields of Delano, living alongside the challenges created by grueling farm labor. They are soon followed by Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), and the three of them join forces and form the organizing committee, creating a structure that helps out with the day-to-day needs of farm workers. This includes forming a credit union funded by donations from workers, which solves the immediate problem of poverty during the winter months when there’s no picking work.
The fledgling organization attracts the attention of the local power structure, and the Sheriff of Delano confronts the crowds gathering at the operations headquarters, demanding to know what they are doing and if they are Communists. Although Chavez and the others deny being Communists, the growers and local law enforcement decide the new farm worker alliance, which is also printing a weekly labor paper berating the excesses of the growers, represent a probable Communist threat.
In alliance with law enforcement, and in defiance of the actual law of the land, the growers assault and terrorize the striking workers. Chavez holds the fragile alliance of Chicano and Filipino forces together, demanding they uphold the principle of non-violence in response to the repressive tactics. In response, the growers illegally bring in more workers from Mexico, undercutting the strikers.
The organizing committee realizes the growers are too powerful to take on all at once, and aim all of their energy at one company, Victore. The action moves from Delano’s fields and into the public, hitting churches, supermarkets, and community groups with one united message: boycott.
Weeks of thorough leafleting and media coverage hits directly at the company’s profits, and the CEO of Victore is the first domino to fall, giving the boycott its first success. Although the then-Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, proclaims the strikers “immoral”, the strikers have won the moral argument in the media with their peaceful tactics and the message that it is immoral to allow the people who put food on the nation’s tables to starve. This leaves the next tier of growers in a vulnerable state.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy arrives in Delano to mete out public rebukes to the growers for their reactionary and unconstitutional maneuvers in repressing the workers. Kennedy’s political influence, however, fades away when he’s assassinated in Los Angeles.
Radiating subdued glee, the grower Bogdanovich, portrayed by a reptilian John Malkovich, receives a phone call from the newly sworn-in President Richard Nixon, who has a cunning plan: circumvent the boycott by selling the grapes to Europe, allowing the Department of Defense to simply purchase the remaining fruit.
Chavez travels to Europe and personally makes a case to the workers of Europe, and is welcomed by major trade unions in Great Britain. In a move reminiscent of the weavers of Manchester refusing to work with slave-produced cotton during the Civil War, transport and dockworkers in Great Britain refuse to unload the US-grown grapes.
Back in California, a harried Dolores Huerta gets an unexpected phone call: the growers have totally capitulated as their crops rot in the fields, and tell her they are ready to sign a contract with the workers. On July 29, 1970, growers and workers gather to sign the history-making contract in a scene that evokes a military surrender on the part of the owners.
It would take another five years for the UFW to be granted a charter and the right to organize.
The film ends on this somber note, in contrast to other labor pictures that often roll credits on the eve of victory. It is an interesting artistic choice, which reflects the personal toll this battle took on Chavez and his family, and also foreshadows the fact that the work he started continues even now.
Photo: Cesar Chavez and Larry Itliong (of the Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee) holding the AFL-CIO charter for the United Farm Workers in 1971.