The Myths of Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez

a film directed by Diego Luna
Robert Kennedy passing a piece of bread to Cesar Chavez at the end of Chavez’s fast during the farm workers’ strike against grape growers, Delano, California, March 1968

The civil rights movement of the 1960s gets a much better press than the labor movement. Yet the two causes were intertwined. Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, stood beside Martin Luther King while he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. King spent the last day of his life speaking to sanitation workers who were trying to affiliate with Jerry Wurf’s American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Civil rights, it was understood, were tangled up with economic rights. Today we’ve wrenched them apart, to the detriment of both, and especially of organized labor.

Cesar Chavez is the one labor figure from the 1960s who remains a household name. That’s mostly because he’s remembered as a champion for Latinos generally and Mexican-Americans specifically. Chavez himself disdained union leaders. He saw his cause as much larger than a labor movement. But it was as president and cofounder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) that Chavez made his mark, and it’s as a union leader that the film director Diego Luna and the scriptwriters Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton portray him in their underappreciated 2014 film, Cesar Chavez.

American movies about labor unions are rare—the last decent one was John Sayles’s Matewan (1987)—and upbeat movies about unions rarer still. Cesar Chavez is both. It tells the story of Chavez’s 1970 victory over California grape growers with more dramatic restraint than is often the case with biopics, and with closer adherence to the facts. It’s a shame the film received scant attention on its theatrical release; as popular art and as history it’s superior to the much-praised Selma. Drawn from a similarly inspirational story, Selma struck me as a pretty good movie marred by its melodramatic and inaccurate portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson.1 Cesar Chavez contains its own somewhat melodramatic portrayal of a president—Ronald Reagan in his days as California governor. But where Selma has Tom Wilkinson as Johnson, Cesar Chavez shows the Gipper himself in archival news footage hammily popping grapes into his mouth and telling reporters that Chavez’s movement is “immoral.”

The end titles of Cesar Chavez inform viewers that five years after Chavez’s victory in 1970 the UFW successfully lobbied the California state government for a law—still the only one in the nation—providing regulatory protection to farmworkers who seek to join a union. That’s a suitably triumphant coda, and a truthful one. But it’s also incomplete. After the grape boycott Chavez’s story grew stranger and darker—dramatic in its own way, but closer in tone to Citizen Kane.

As Miriam Pawel relates in her authoritative biography—the second of two books she has written about the UFW’s rise and fall—Chavez’s personal obsessions, combined with his…

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