If there was ever a hero for the labor movement, it was Cesar Chavez. The legendary activist's relentless commitment to migrant laborers, his personal sacrifice for civil rights and his determination in founding, with Dolores Huerta, the National Farm Workers Association (which later became the powerful United Farm Workers union) is an inspiring example of how speaking truth to power can change the world.
Chavez's story is about to reach millions: A feature-length film about his life, titled Cesar Chavez, hits movie theaters on March 28. Starring Michael Peña, Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera and John Malkovich, the movie tells the story of a man who not only led farm workers to secure a living wage for themselves, but inspired a nation to recognize worker rights.
"We really hope with this film, people will understand why my grandfather did this work," says Christine Chavez, one of Cesar Chavez's granddaughters. "We want people to come out of the theater knowing that one person can make a difference."
Cesar Chavez was a humble man, she adds, and so his family hopes the film serves as more than just a tribute to an American hero. "He always wanted the attention to be on the farm workers," she says. "We want people to remember that farm workers today still need to be protected."
Chavez was born in 1927 near Yuma, Ariz., where his family owned a ranch. When the family later lost the property, they moved to California, where they became migrant farm workers. Chavez never completed high school, but instead worked with his family in the fields. He eventually became involved with the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group, before working with other civil rights and labor organizations.
Chavez led strikes and protests, including a national grape boycott to bring attention to pesticides that threatened the health of workers in U.S. vineyards. He went on several hunger strikes, and many feel his death at age 66 was due in part to those strikes. Besides creating a foundation for later labor rights work, Chavez's more immediate contributions included winning higher wages, safer working conditions and collective bargaining rights for the farm workers of his time.
The new film covers all of that plus Chavez's struggle to balance his responsibility to his wife and eight children with his passionate fight for dignity and justice for laborers. It documents the 250-mile march he led to Sacramento, the grape boycott and, in what Christine Chavez says may be a surprise to some people, the role Cesar Chavez's wife, Helen, played in the movement.
Already the film has reached President Obama, who hosted a screening at the White House on March 19. Among the guests were Julie Chavez Rodriguez, another granddaughter of Chavez; Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union; UFW President Arturo Rodriguez; and Cesar Chavez film director Diego Luna, who asked Chavez's family for permission before making the film.
Obama said Chavez was one of the people who inspired him to take up community advocacy and to keep working for what is right. "That is one of the great lessons of his life—we don't give up the fight," Obama said. "No matter how long it takes, no matter how long the odds, we keep on going."
March 21, 2014