DELANO, Calif. — The audience members stepped off buses waving red UFW flags. Some came straight from the fields. Those from Salinas and Madera and farther away had given up a day’s wages to attend.
The first feature film about Cesar Chavez had been screened in Los Angeles and at the White House. On Tuesday evening, “Cesar Chavez” played outdoors and in Spanish for the farmworkers Chavez represented.
“From the beginning, we said we have to go back and give it to the people,” director Diego Luna said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
A giant screen went up outside the hall where table grape growers first signed contracts with the United Farm Workers more than four decades ago. Banda music played over speakers. Luna hugged Chavez’s middle son, Paul.
The Rojas sisters danced in a row of seats entirely filled by their family and friends.
Last week, when Erica Rojas’ mother asked if she wanted to go to the movie, the 17-year-old said, “Mom, get tickets for everyone. We’re seeing this as a family.” Nancy Rojas came home from UC Riverside. Viviana Rojas came home from UC Merced. Both of their parents work in the fields in Kern County, near Arvin.
When the film played, its images were a mirror of everything around: the fields, the stretching sky, the buildings — and the faces in the audience.
By the end of the evening, “si se puede” would meet “que sera sera” in the form of an unexpected spring shower that abruptly cut the showing short.
But Viviana wasn’t sure it mattered.
“I saw enough to know there are many details I don’t know,” she said. “The night was about reuniting people and reminding us what happened here.”
The film is set in the 10 years surrounding the grape boycotts that began in the 1960s and drew national attention to brutal working conditions in the fields.
In 1968 at the Forty Acres, this UFW center west of Delano, Chavez fasted for 25 days to rededicate the farmworker movement to nonviolence. Thousands of workers came to support him. Every morning, Mass was celebrated in the warehouse of the union’s co-op gas station.
This week, to get hundreds of people to a film screening in the middle of grape fields on short notice, organizers used the same tactics that Chavez once employed to transform this isolated spot into the center of a social movement.
“We had house meetings, and I saw that it only takes a couple of people to get everyone else excited,” said Rubi Flores, a UFW organizer.
In the Fresno area, the person pushing hardest was Juan Cruz, 26.
He worked for a company where the employees are in a tense struggle over whether to leave the union. He said he was fired this year shortly after wearing a UFW shirt to the fields.
“They used him as an example,” former co-worker Alma Patino Alvarez, 29, said. “There was another woman who went to human resources because the overalls are thrown together and dirty and they might have chemicals. The next day, the forelady threw wet overalls on the ground and said: ‘You want to work, wear them.’ ”
Cruz said he knew little of Cesar Chavez.
“I’m here to learn,” the recent immigrant said in Spanish. “I’ve only heard his name.”
Luna got on the stage to introduce the film as the Central Valley sky darkened to purple. Hundreds of people held up cellphones to take his photo. Luna took out his phone to take a photo of them.
“I had a feeling of looking at people so much better than me. They believe in big things. I don’t know how far they traveled to be there, how they did it. The strength they show us is a strength not many people have,” he said.
Luna has no connection to the fields. The 34-year-old has been an actor in Mexico since childhood, coming to the attention of American audiences in the 2001 film “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” Many filmmakers tried unsuccessfully over the decades to secure the rights to a film from the Chavez family.
Luna, over the course of years, won their trust. But he couldn’t find Hollywood financing.
“They really do say things like ‘Can you make it sexier?’ ” he said. He headed back to Mexico, where he found investors and shot what he calls “An American Story” in Sonora for a modest $10 million.
“I found the Cesar Chavez story when I was about 20. I kept getting closer and closer to the Chavez family, to people in the fields,” he said. “This film is a lot about listening to them. I hope it can be used to put pressure on immigration reform, on working conditions in the fields, in reminding all of us about the people who pick our food.”
About halfway into the film Tuesday, a gust of wind blew, kicking up dust. It began to rain.
People started leaving. The Rojas clan stayed put, shouting “Si, se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”)
The screen went dark. The speakers weren’t made for rain.
The Rojas sisters said they will see the movie in Bakersfield when it opens Friday. If they can talk their mother and father into going, it will be the first time they have been to a movie theater as a family.