In an early scene of Cesar Chavez, the film by Mexican director Diego Luna depicting one of Chavez’s first forays into the fields of California’s Central Valley to recruit members for his farm workers union, Chavez seeks out one farmworker.
His name is Juan de la Cruz, and he indicates a reluctant willingness to speak with Chavez, played by Michael Peña, but says they can’t talk in the fields. In the next scene, Chavez is speaking with de la Cruz, who is surrounded by his family, in his small shack. He owns nothing, he admits, in response to Chavez’s prodding, he can’t read, and his wife and older children work alongside him in the fields.
“Do you want something better for your kids?” Chavez asks.
“Pos, sí (Well, yes),” de la Cruz admits, but he quickly follows that with a caveat: the majority of the people are scared.
“They have to feed their kids,” he explains, in Spanish, and adds that to fight for his rights alone, “está cabrón (It’s tough).”
De la Cruz is played by Mexican actor Noé Hernández, who pulls off the best (if brief) performance. When he reluctantly admits that he owns nothing, it’s after he looks furtively to his children, who are watching the interaction between de la Cruz and Chavez with curiosity. There is a look in De la Cruz’s eyes that is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever spent time among migrant worker.
It is the look of a proud yet defeated and despairing father, forced to admit — in the presence of those who look up to him — that, despite the long hard hours he and his family spend in the fields, he has been able to provide for his family little more than the beat-up old car that takes them from field to field and farm to farm.
And when Hernández utters the phrase, “está cabrón,” it is with a resignation that is deep and convincing, one that expresses the utter hopelessness and despair that has been imprinted deep in the souls of the hundreds of thousands of laborers who have found themselves at the unforgiving mercy of the rich and powerful.
With his few words, Hernández conveys the desperation that moves de la Cruz, and others, to take the scary step of joining a cause that offered little assurance of success and plenty of hardships and heartaches – and brutal repression.
If I have any disappointment about this film, it is that that Luna and writers Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton saw no need to do the same with Chavez himself. Maybe they would have been able to achieve that with a more mature and experienced actor. Peña did a commendable job of playing the soft-spoken messianic loner that Chavez was, but his portrayal never answered the crucial question as to what in his life led him to pursue this tortured path.
The film begins with a Chavez voiceover about how he ended up a farmworker at the age of 11 after his father lost his Arizona farm during the Great Depression. Then, quickly, he is with the Community Service Organization (CSO) — the Saul Alinsky group that is conveniently labeled “communist” by California growers — organizing Los Angeles barrio residents, and then just as quickly he has left Los Angeles to organize farm workers. There is no mention of Sal Si Puedes, the San Jose neighborhood where Chavez first became an activist – which might have given us a greater clue as to the roots of Chavez’s passion and social conscience.
Peña plays Chavez a bit too one-dimensional, but there are a few intimate, touching scenes with Helen, his wife (America Ferrera) and son Fernando (the talented Eli Vargas) which offer hints of a more complex – and appealing — Chavez.
However, these are minor criticisms in light of the overall beauty and realism of the movie. Filmed in rich, romantic colors in Sonora, which looks eerily like the Central Valley, the film used mostly locals in minor roles and as extras, and that may account for the authenticity of most of the scenes in the fields and labor camps, from the bloodied knees of stoop laborers to uncaring supervisors to pesticide-spraying airplanes. When you hire farmworkers to play farmworkers, there is little a need for acting lessons.
Ferrera and Rosario Dawson, as Dolores Huerta, do a fine job of portraying strong women who kept both La Causa going and Chavez on the righteous path when he wavered (although I wish both figured more prominently).
And that is part of the film’s appeal and strength: it does not shy away from shining the spotlight on the Chavez traits that drove his family and his followers crazy: too busy being a martyr, for instance, when his followers needed a leader and too preoccupied with union matters when his family needed a father.
The film ends in triumph. However, in not shying away from presenting the complex Chavez throughout, it offers strong hints of the future, of reality: of what happens to a movement that does not cultivate new leaders and is therefore unable to retain its purpose and ideals – and momentum — once its charismatic founder and inspirational driving force is no longer in the picture.
Juan R. Palomo is a former Houston Post columnist who grew up in South Texas. He was born in North Dakota to a migrant family, and spent most of his summers through college working in the fields of that state and other Midwestern states.
From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2014
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