From a reader:

On the Film Cesar Chavez: History Is Made One Step at a Time

April 14, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Editor’s Note: Cesar Chavez: History Is Made One Step at a Time depicts a very important episode in U.S. history—the struggle of farmworkers that went up against brutal, back-breaking exploitation in the fields and the violent repression. This is something rarely if ever mentioned in history books and popular culture. In that light, we are printing the following correspondence from a reader.


I went to see the new film on Cesar Chavez (Cesar Chavez: History Is Made One Step at a Time) shortly after it opened. I have long been close to that story and familiar with the history. Despite the importance of farmworkers to society and the history of farmworkers' struggle in California, this was the first movie about them in memory. I had to see it.

The theater was showing two versions of the Chavez movie, one a Spanish dub. This I was happy to see. I've long thought it outrageous, the near total lack of Spanish language movies in the theaters of a state like California with such a huge and important Spanish-speaking population!

We settled in to an afternoon showing, normally not a time of big crowds, and the theater was less than a third full; it seemed like a majority were Latino.

As the movie ended, several youths who'd been in the audience planted themselves near the exit and greeted those leaving with "wasn't that a great movie!?" Later I saw them join their friends in the lobby talking excitedly about the film. I heard one youth say he'd seen it three times. Their enthusiasm was understandable. In a society which criminalizes its immigrants as "illegals" and their children as "gang members," any movie that depicts Latinos, immigrants and farmworkers in a positive light—and even more, standing up in struggle against exploiters, is, to say the least, rare.

Indeed there were many obstacles the film's director, Diego Luna, had to overcome to even get the movie made. Funding was a big problem. Sources in the U.S. turned him down and one said straight up the story was not "sexy" enough. In the end, financing had to be found in Mexico, and to facilitate the production, in part due to budget restraints, the film was shot in Sonora, Mexico.

As to the movie itself, its production values, the acting and cinematography are artfully done. The scenes of the era, for example the farmworker rallies, have a genuine feel to them. There are compelling moments that give a glimpse of the power of a time when farmworkers successfully challenged the mighty grape growers, and the forces of the state that back them. We see scenes of the grape growers, isolated and outmaneuvered by a boycott that rallied the public to support farmworkers in a way that had never occurred before. Historical movies are not meant to perfectly recapture events but encapsulate truths. And on this score the movie did that.

Notwithstanding all that, there are big problems with this film.

For those who may not be aware, the movie recounts the beginning of the farmworker movement of the 1960s and 1970s with the Delano, California, grape strike and boycott from 1965 to 1970. Many reviewers have commented that despite the important history it deals with, the film is flat and lacks subtlety and drama. Some say it's the way Cesar Chavez, who leads the farmworker struggle beginning in 1965, is portrayed, a kind of saintly everyman without much depth. And I think there's some truth in that. But even more problematic, and related to this problem of over-simplification, is the way the movie divorces the struggle it depicts from the larger landscape from which the strike and the subsequent farmworker movement emerged. The film not only gives us little historical context, it seems to purposely exclude it. In the movie even the conditions that led farmworkers to rebel are vague at best.

For example, the film refers to the Filipino farmworkers' strike against grape growers in 1965 that was the spark for the movement to come. But we are given no hint that the strike came shortly after the end of the Bracero program. This is no mere historical footnote. From 1942 to 1964, hundreds of thousands of workers were contracted from Mexico to work in the fields of California, Arizona, Texas and elsewhere under conditions that can only be described as semi-slavery. It was a brutal system of labor enforced by the oppressive hand of the state, in particular the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)—La Migra. Throughout that time workers were prohibited from challenging low wages and onerous conditions under threat of deportation. For various reasons the Bracero program was ended in 1964. When the Bracero program ended, low wages, rotten housing, discrimination and the lack of rights continued. Growers scrambled to cobble together another labor system to fulfill their need for abundant and vulnerable cheap labor. It was during this transition that the Filipino farmworkers struck and lit the match. The timing here was crucial. This was 1965 and the world was entering a period of social upheaval.

Filipino farmworkers won their initial strike in Coachella but faced a much more powerful and prepared group of growers around Delano. In one of the more dramatic scenes in the movie, growers' goons move to evict the strikers from their camp. The Filipinos seek allies among the Mexican grape workers. This is when Chavez and his National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) enter the struggle. Chavez is reluctant to have his organization join the strike, understanding that field strikes are difficult to win. Yet, knowing that staying out of the strike would have hurt the NFWA's credibility, he agrees to call a meeting to decide the issue.

At the actual meeting at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Delano, Mexican workers, estimated to be 800 to 1,200 people, overwhelmingly vote to join the Filipinos on strike. The meeting took place on Mexican Independence Day, September 16, and was filled with references and imagery recalling the wars of independence and the Mexican revolution. This is not a tangential point—one of the important characteristics of the farmworker movement, indeed one of its most powerful aspects, is the historic struggle of Mexicans against a long history of oppression going back to the theft of Mexican lands in 1848. The Mexican immigrants have been and continue to be an oppressed people—a racial caste—kept down by a whole system of laws and racist institutions. Yet in the movie, this scene at the church is scrubbed clean of these historical references, as is, indeed, the movie itself.

Where's the 1960s?

By the spring of 1966, the second year of the strike, the mood among the strikers was at a low point. The growers had survived the previous harvest-season strike. They had replaced strikers with strikebreakers recruited from places in California, Texas, Mexico and elsewhere. Many of the original strikers had moved on, forced by the necessity to feed themselves and their families. To keep up morale and to "revive" the strike, Chavez and the leading core of the union decided to lead a 300-mile pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento. While this was tactically a good move, there was no guarantee it would be successful. In the film we get a sense of a long, grueling march; donations of shoes arriving along the way, symbolizing the support it is generating, and news reaches the marchers that a winery—in reality Schenley but in the movie given another name—agrees to negotiate out of fear of damaging its image and market share—a significant breakthrough. Finally we see the march ending in Sacramento and some 10,000 people rallying to meet it! In other words, we get a glimmer of something new emerging—a strike that is becoming a movement and rallying broad support. But that is about as far as the movie takes us.

The farmworker struggle emerged as part of a society and world in great struggle. Internationally liberation movements were raging in areas of the world that had been subject to colonial oppression. A cultural revolution in China brought a vision of a radically different world from capitalism into the consciousness of millions, especially youth. On the home front the civil rights movement was giving rise to a Black liberation struggle that was radicalizing youths in the inner cities and on the campuses. Women were challenging traditional roles and demanding reproductive rights. Students were defying a putrefying, conservative campus environment. The anti-Vietnam war movement was challenging the U.S. ruling class as never before. Politically awakened youths were going out into the communities to confront racist police and the status quo. A Chicano movement, deeply influenced by the farmworkers' struggle, was awakening a whole generation born of immigrant parents. The strike in Delano was bringing middle class youths off the campuses into conflict with an exploitive system they had barely known existed. Many people were concluding that only a revolution could uproot all the corruption and oppression around them.

Youthful activists were a significant part of the farmworker movement; as volunteers they carried out important work for the union. At one point the union had something like 600 volunteers. But in Chavez, the movie, we barely see them. In many respects the farmworker movement is the story of the encounter between farmworkers, long exploited and oppressed and isolated, now politically awakening and energized by new possibilities, encountering allies in the cities where they went to boycott or on the picket lines in strikes across the state. In the real world a contentious struggle and debate raged within the union and that movement over questions about the nature of society, racism, the war in Vietnam and others, reflecting the bigger questions that were being debated in those years in society.

By tearing history out of that context, the film leaves us with an impoverished and distorted saga of one man's heroic actions and self-sacrifice as the motor of this great social movement. This has long been an official mythology of the farmworker movement. The Chavez movie did not invent it. It merely repeats it.

The Kennedys

Bobby Kennedy, who by the time we see him is a senator from New York, plays a big part in this movie. We first see him in 1966 in a Central Valley hearing on violence in the grape strike where he berates the Delano sheriff for violating the constitutional rights of the strikers. He appears again later at the end of Chavez's famous 25-day fast. As the story goes, and the movie depicts, Chavez, enraged at farmworker violence on the picket line—against grower goons who try to run down the workers with a car—begins a 25-day fast to promote nonviolence. Here we are given to believe that the disciplining of these unruly strikers by the highly moral leader holds the key to the movement's success. The fast culminates in a service where Chavez takes communion, comforted by Bobby Kennedy at his side.

Once again it would have been helpful to have some broader context, to understand what was really going on here. This was 1968. The U.S. was facing the prospect of defeat in Vietnam and rebellion at home. Youthful rebellion was breaking out across the planet. This was a time in which the stability of the whole U.S. capitalist system was at stake. The various apparatus of the government were working overtime to divide, undermine or destroy that which threatened the system. What Kennedy in this context represented was one front in that effort. (Other fronts included assassinations, framing and railroading political activists, FBI dirty tricks, distortions in the media, and so on.) What Kennedy had to offer was political support from a powerful wing of the ruling class. In return they would expect a union where more radical elements were suppressed and where the legitimacy of the system would not be challenged. In Chavez they got someone who was willing to make that kind of a deal.

Kennedy was no more a genuine friend of farmworkers than Obama (the Deporter-in-Chief) is a friend of immigrants. It comes down to this: You can't be the friend of the oppressed when you are the active leader and defender of the system that oppresses them!

The film ends in 1970. The five-year Delano strike and boycott has come to an end, having overcome obstacles, to build a broad boycott effort that reaches across the country and across the ocean to Europe. The growers, despite direct help from the Nixon regime, unable to recoup the shrinking market for their grapes, can't hold out. They sign contracts giving the United Farm Workers union (UFW) the right to represent tens of thousands of grape workers. The movie ends at what turned out to be the beginning of a more powerful and contentious period ahead.

As the movie draws to an end, a message is flashed on the screen about the passage of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act in California. The Act provided for a process of union elections. The implication is that farmworkers' rights have been established and that this is the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the UFW.

The movie offers us no hint of what are the conditions in the fields of California today. In fact, if anything, they are immeasurably worse than in the days before the union movement began. The union itself barely exists as more than an appendage of the exploitive system. Wages have stagnated for decades and working conditions have likewise deteriorated. Women suffer widespread sexual abuse in a system where labor contractors are far more prevalent than in the 1970s. Workers living in Mexican border towns who cross into the U.S. to work in the winter months are subject to punishing waits. A militarized border takes its toll on those who desperately need work to help their families or who return to Mexico to visit families and return for work. Deportations on an unprecedented scale affect farmworkers as they do all immigrants deprived of documents. Tens of thousands of immigrants are in detention, separated from families, and the list goes on. Police brutality and mass incarceration takes its toll on the children of farmworkers and Latino immigrants generally. Meanwhile, this "democratic" capitalist-imperialist society is ever more dependent on a racial caste system which condemns farmworkers and others to extremes of exploitation and repression.

The film's director, Diego Luna, said he made the movie when he realized that young people in Mexico and the U.S. knew nothing of Cesar Chavez and the movement he led. The movie held the promise of delivering to this new generation a glimpse of a time when millions stood up to demand change—something that could raise their sights and deepen their understanding of society and the roots of oppression all around them. In the end it did not live up to that potential.


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