I went to see the movie, Cesar Chavez on his birthday, March 31st. I watched and felt a mix of sentiments about it. Being an individual who was partly inspired by Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union (U.F.W.) I felt a certain amount of kinship with the characters of the movie. As a former union president, of the International Molders & Allied Workers Union Local #164 in Northern California I felt a sense of solidarity. I met Chavez in Exeter, CA in 1979 while we discussed mutual support of each others unions. They walked with us in our picket lines and we walked with them and supported their boycott campaign.
The national boycott was inspiration to many people of my generation. We walked picket lines at Safeway and Lucky stores to discourage shoppers from buying grapes and lettuce. Many young Chicanas and Chicanos like myself thought of the United Farm Workers Union as an extension of the “Chicano Movement.” The Huelga (strike) made people conscious of the conflict between capitalists and workers in an agricultural setting.
The recent movie focuses on the early years of the United Farm Workers Union. Chavez was a central figure and a dedicated charismatic leader, who made many individual sacrifices for the common good of campesinos (farm workers). The movie does a great job of capturing the cruelty of the growers and the steadfast organizing of the farm workers, as they maintained their unwavering commitment to gaining a union contract. Chavez was a great strategist and devised multiple and effective responses to the conspiracy between the growers and local sheriffs.
Even though Dolores Huerta and his wife, Helen Chavez, play a significant role in the U.F.W. they were portrayed as supportive individuals compared to the roles of men. The movie and real-life role of Chavez tended to reinforce patriarchy, putting men in positions of greater importance. Knowing of and hearing Dolores Huerta speak at events, I can’t imagine her sitting in the background and simply agreeing with everything and not forcefully putting forth her ideas. I found this interesting presentation on learning about women in the U.F.W., Fight in the Fields, Through the Role of Women by Jessica Vargas, which states as its objective to: “The objective of the lesson is to teach students about the struggle of farm workers specifically through the lens of women, and analyze the roles they took in the movement.” It looks at the role of women from a critical perspective that I thought was useful in helping my understanding.
Similarly, as we were introduced to Filipino farm workers in the movie, they were treated as less important contributors to the movement. Yet Filipino farm workers were instrumental in the formation of the union. They had already begun organizing before the U.F.W. was formed and were initial partners in uniting the predominantly Mexican and Filipino farm workers together in their common struggle against the vicious and racist growers and sheriffs. Names like Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco should have been recognized in the movie. The moviemakers missed a great opportunity to demonstrate how this ethnic solidarity was critical to advancing the cause of farm workers. One great essay to learn more about this is Filipinos—Forgotten Heroes of the UFW. (See for example: “Filipinos–Forgotten Heroes of the UFW“)
Although it was not explicitly explained in the movie, Chavez had confusing and contradictory positions on undocumented workers. I remember being young and feeling confused about Chavez’s anti immigrant comments, such as referring to them as illegals and supporting their deportation. His views, I’ve heard, stemmed from his anger at undocumented workers because they were used as “scabs” (crossing the picket line to work). Yet, his views tended to support the reactionary racist sentiments in the United States and U.S. policies towards undocumented immigrants. Later the U.F.W. became supportive of undocumented immigrants’ rights and organizing immigrants was a key part of their strategy. Here is one perspective on this period.
Lastly, I want to say that Cesar Chavez was an individual who made many important contributions in the overall struggle for justice, workers’ rights, civil disobedience and the rights of immigrant workers. You will find plenty of anti-Chavez articles in the internet and print. Much of it is decontextualized and serve a broader purpose of discrediting the U.F.W., civil rights, immigrants rights and progressive activism. So I believe it is important to recognize the positive contributions and lessons from Chavez’s life and legacy. At the same time I believe we can learn from his mistakes or misguided sentiments. Chavez developed a paternal and controlling leadership style, which led to purges of activists who disagreed with his leadership and the U.F.W. had eventually lost the kind of support it once had among workers and supporters. I found one article that sums up that period in Labor Notes.
In conclusion, I wanted to write a thoughtful response about the movie, and give a my own perspective based on personal experiences, discussions I’ve had with other people who were U.F.W. supporters, and articles I’ve read. Overall I think the Cesar Chavez movie should be viewed, not only by veteran activists, but also young people who my not understand what it was like in the 1960s to be a Mexican or Filipino trying to organize in rural California. The U.F.W. broke down some barriers, but it took a great deal of sacrifice and hardship, which is demonstrated in the movie. The movie had its shortcomings, which I attempted to address in this essay. I think it’s necessary to offer praise where praise is deserved, but at the same time, be critical but explain criticisms in context.
Joe Navarro is a teacher, creative writer, poet, a husband, father and grandfather; and, has been an advocate for social justice and social change in labor, community, immigration, anti-U.S. intervention, education, anti-war and human rights issues. His website is http://joenavarro.weebly.com.Download this piece as a PDF