“Cesar Chavez” – Movie Review


Today is Cesar Chavez day, a state holiday in California, Colorado, and Texas.  This holiday is in honor of one of the greatest community activists, in recent history, and it is intended to promote community service.  Here is the review on the movie recently released on Chavez’s life and work.

The movie chronicles the civil rights struggle of Chavez, and his steadfast commitment to securing fair living wages and decent work conditions for farm workers, through civil disobedience, and other non-violent means.  The story begins in 1962, in Delano, CA.  Chavez worked in the fields until 1952 and then became an organizer for the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group.  In 1962, Chavez left the CSO and co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), later called the United Farm Workers (UFW).  Very early in the struggle, Chavez insisted that they would challenge the growers and rich lobbyists strictly through non-violent means.  Despite the boycotters facing many challenges, including arrested under false pretext, getting beat up by the police, getting shot at by the growers, and being doused by pesticides, Chavez insisted that under his leadership, they will not resort to violent means.  “You always have a choice”, he said.  And yet when people resorted to violence, he went on a fast, insisting that he would only break his fast, if every single member would sign a pledge of non-violence.  He also realized the strength in numbers and says, “we need an army of boycotters”.  Chavez also realized that if divided the farm workers will succumb to the growers, but with collaboration and unity, they will succeed.  He supported Filipino American farm workers and won their support.

This is a beautiful movie that chronicles his struggles that inspired millions of Americans to stand up and fight for social justice.  When the growers decided to bypass the American market and sell to England and countries in Europe, Chavez traveled to Europe and made his case directly to the people there and won their support in boycotting grapes from the US.  Chavez’ ultimate triumph in getting growers to the table and get them to accept the demands from the workers, for social justice and fairness, is indeed a heartwarming testament to the tenacity, commitment, and power of one individual to change the world.

Michael Pena is fabulous in his role as Cesar Chavez.  America Ferrera in her role as Cesar’s wife, Helen Chavez, packs quite a punch.  Helen Chavez supported her husband’s struggles but she was also torn between this struggle and her role as a mother.  When her son, Fernando (Eli Vargas) was getting picked on, in the school, on account of his father’s struggles, she became a lioness, coming to the rescue of her son.  During his teen years, Fernando Chavez, alienated from his peers, due to his father’s struggles, blamed his father and turned away from him, which deeply pained Chavez.

Cesar Chavez has left a giant legacy and he has been commemorated in a number of ways.  He has been a recipient of many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and there is a portrait of Chavez in the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C.  There are books on Cesar Chavez, colleges named after him, parks and roads named after him, and postage stamps and navy ships named in his honor, and more.

This movie beautifully tells the story of the intensely challenging reality of the American farm workers’ lives, during 60’s and 70’s, and Chavez’s role in getting the society to acknowledge the harshness of their life and agree to certain fair wages and living conditions.  While there is an important history lesson embedded here, there isn’t a single dull moment in the movie.  Director Diego Luna has done a marvelous job of capturing the essence of Chavez’s long civil rights struggle and balancing it with a peak into how his struggle impacted other workers and his own family.  On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent, I rate this movie a 4.8 and I assert that it should be must-see movie for students of American History.

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