Op-Ed:  Cesar Chavez: A life bigger than film

Michael Pena stars as Cesar Chavez in "Cesar Chavez." (
(Handout / MCT)

I defer to film critics to pass judgment on the artistic merits of Diego Luna’s heartfelt effort to bring the life of Cesar Chavez to the silver screen. I do not begrudge the many factual inaccuracies; it’s a movie. Nor do I question the decision to omit some of Chavez’s more complicated and controversial actions, or the union’s decline in later years.

But sometimes, history is more compelling than fiction.

As a writer who has spent almost a decade researching Chavez, what struck me was that the movie altered key events in ways that robbed them of their inherent drama. Pivotal moments in the farmworker struggle that could have illuminated Chavez’s strategic brilliance were stripped of context, depriving the audience of real insight into the man or the movement at a time of triumph.

Successful biopics serve an important role by using entertainment to engage audiences with important historical events. Directors always take liberties with facts, usually in the interest of capturing a protagonist’s essential power and genius. In “Cesar Chavez,” the fictionalized oversimplification serves only as another missed opportunity to communicate the complex genius of a remarkable man.


At the start of the 1965 Delano grape strike, for example, when sheriffs imposed unreasonable limitations on picket lines, Chavez devised a high-profile protest. He quietly asked a group of ministers and half a dozen women, including his wife, to defy an injunction against shouting “huelga” (Spanish for strike).

On Oct. 19, 1965, the “Huelga 44" were dragged off to jail — the Rev. Chris Hartmire arrested in the midst of an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Chavez timed the protest to coincide with a speech he was delivering on the UC Berkeley campus. He feigned surprise at news of the arrests and asked students and faculty for money to help post bail — raising more than $1,000. Back in Delano, another top aide, the Rev. James Drake, brought three dozen children to a candlelight vigil outside the county jail where their mothers remained behind bars.

In the movie version of the famous scene, Helen Chavez insists on getting arrested over Cesar’s objections, shouting “huelga” until she is hauled away. No clergy, no other women, no Berkeley speech, no jailhouse vigil. The filmmakers squandered an opportunity to show how skillfully Chavez orchestrated those early protests, drew on support from key allies and maximized publicity.

As the strike dragged on, supporters grew impatient, confrontations in the fields increased, and, on Feb. 13, 1968, Chavez was served with a contempt citation for union-related violence. The next day, he embarked on the celebrated fast that would catapult him into the national spotlight.

As days went by and Chavez grew weak, farmworkers flocked to Delano to pay their respects and ask how they could help. Chavez aide Marshall Ganz had the answer: He organized a silent protest that transformed the local courthouse from enemy territory into a bastion of support. On the morning Chavez was due in court to answer the contempt citation, farmworkers surrounded the courthouse four-deep and filled every courtroom seat. A judge usually sympathetic to the growers refused to kick out the workers, saying it would be just another example of “gringo justice.”

In the movie version of the fast, there is no courthouse scene.

Perhaps the most lasting memory of Chavez for many Americans is the grape boycott, which ultimately brought the union its first major victories. Chavez sent farmworkers to cities across the country with a simple but implausible mandate: stop supermarkets from selling grapes. Eliseo Medina, a 21-year-old farmworker who had never been on a plane, went to Chicago with $100 and the name of a friendly labor leader. Marcos Munoz, who could not speak English or write Spanish, went to Boston. Al Rojas took his family to Pittsburgh, not knowing where or how they would live.

Through strategic alliances with labor, religious groups and students, boycott leaders caused so many headaches for supermarkets that executives told growers to solve their labor problems — or the stores would stop carrying grapes.

In the movie, the boycott is reduced to scenes of Chavez dumping grapes into the ocean and of union backers who turn out to help with phone banks and other support.

Finally, while less historic in its import, even Chavez’s relationship with his oldest son, Fernando, is more dramatic in reality than on film. The movie dwells on the tension between the two, but it omits any reference to Fernando’s decision to risk jail because he had been denied conscientious objector status during the height of the Vietnam War. Fernando refused induction in April 1969. He made the decision, he told the court, after talking to his father during his 25-day fast for nonviolence.

Some union supporters pressured Chavez to denounce his son’s action. Despite severe back pain, Chavez addressed the union’s Friday night meeting on May 6, 1969, to defend Fernando’s decision. Chavez’s words were preserved for history on tape:

“This has nothing to do with the union, only that he is my son and I am the director of the union so it has become part of the union.... I know I’ll be willing to give all my time and all my work and my health and my life, if you think that’s needed, but I never really knew there was something I wouldn’t give the movement. And I found today that I’m not willing to give the union my principles.... I’m willing to leave the movement, I’m willing to be asked to leave, but not to sacrifice my principles to anyone, because if you do that, then of course there’s nothing left to give your life meaning.”

Screenwriters would be hard-put to compose dialogue more meaningful than that.

Miriam Pawel is the author, most recently, of “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography.”