Cesar Chavez's accomplishments and legacy are far-reaching - not only did he
create the first effective and influential farmworkers union in US history, one
that had universal appeal in its espousal of dignity, fair wages, humane working
conditions, but his selfless, pacifistic means to those ends were equally
Director Diego Luna found himself drawn to the Cesar Chavez story for myriad
reasons. Of course the Chavez legacy and his determined yet peaceful approach to
upending the system were compelling and potentially cinematic - yet inexplicably
there had never been A Cesar Chavez Movie. The more he learned, the more he
began to have a personal and vested interest in the man and his life. It really
commenced with the birth of his son and that sparked a four year journey that
would lead to producing and directing the movie.
"My interest in Chavez started gestating when I began spending significant
time in Los Angeles. There were streets everywhere carrying his name and
references to him as well as murals in San Francisco. I must admit that I was a
bit ashamed not to know much about him, so I began to investigate. I came to
understand his historical significance, that he was the first Mexican-American
to have a real voice and accomplished so much change for his community. My first
son was born in the United
States so I have a Mexican-American family and now I have a strong connection
with that community. I was surprised to find out that a movie about Cesar Chavez
had not been done and I really think it is the right time for it," Luna says.
In conducting his research, Luna discovered that many people on both sides of
the border were unaware of Cesar Chavez and his accomplishments.
"I kept bumping into people in the United States who thought I WAS doing a
film about Cesar Chavez, who was an icon of the community, whereas in Mexico,
they asked me if I was doing another film about the boxer. I found that there's
an entire generation in both Mexico and the States who may not know much about
who he was, what happened in the 60s and 70s and the importance. That's when it
occurred to me to make a film," Luna says.
Luna and his production company Canana joined forces with screenwriter Keir
Pearson, who already had the rights to the story. While Luna had directed
before, Cesar Chavez marks his first English language film. It was a deliberate
decision for Canana partners and Cesar Chavez producers Luna, Pablo Cruz and
Gael Garcia Bernal.
"We (Canana) had been discussing making an English language film based in the
United States and this was the right story to launch our work in America.
Initially it seemed like an ideal opportunity to get closer to a film industry
and process that is completely unlike ours. And his story was so compelling,
specifically the grape boycott - a great example of social change. He brought
about the collapse of the most powerful industry in the state of California. He
demonstrated the responsibility and power of citizens standing up for
themselves. I see what he did as an incredible movement that promotes dialogue,
intelligence, non-violence and careful action in every aspect. It wasn't just a
strike - they came to really communicate with consumers on a human level - they
let everyone know exactly where those grapes came from, who those people who
picked them were and the conditions behind that. Accomplishing that level of
communication was astonishing, especially given that there were limited
telephones and certainly no Internet. It was real grassroots passion and
tenacity and it seems like now is a great time to remind people about the
strides Chavez made. It is an important time to say, 'Look at Cesar's
accomplishments and imagine what you can do!' " Luna says.
Pablo Cruz adds that both he and Luna were surprised that a movie about
Chavez had not been made before and both felt the timing was right - and were
vindicated when it became clear that Latinos had such a huge effect on the
re-election of President Obama. The Chavez family agreed with their vision of
what the movie could be and although there were many suitors, ultimately they
gave Canana the family's blessing to movie forward.
"Latinos are no longer a minority and the elections were largely decided by
the Latino vote. To the Latino community, especially young people, Cesar Chavez
IS the role model they should be following. Once we visited the Cesar Chavez
Museum in La Paz, there was no turning back. We went to visit the Chavez family,
especially Paul Chavez, Cesar's youngest son. Many filmmakers had been chasing
the story but they decided to go with us. It was a huge responsibility to know
that we where to make the first Cesar film directly with the surviving heirs was
definitely a challenge and one that we felt honored about too, the process of
mutual education both for the family into what making a film is all about and
for us to know the real inside history of who Cesar was became the basic ground
for the film," Cruz notes.
He adds that at first Canana encountered some push back because they were a
Mexican company telling an American story - Chavez was born in Arizona. That
"controversy" quickly subsided as the universal aspects of Chavez's work and
message became the focus.
"We had discussion with the Mexican/American film community here and they
said that this story belonged to them and why a Mexican film company had to come
and make it, we convinced them with a simple argument, Cesar is also one of the
few modern heroes for any Mexican, this side and that side of the border, but
most importantly, he is a universal symbol of the fight for justice, dignity and
equal rights for all, and we had to all make a film for everyone to embrace,"
Luna adds that Chavez the MAN interested him as much as his cause.
"For me, it is the story of a normal person who one day decides to do
something exceptional and gives up everything for it. What interested me about
that are two elements - the sacrifices he made along the road and what he
achieved in so doing. Planting hope in a community that had learned to live
without it. Making an entire country look at a reality it had previously chosen
to ignore. There was a price for sure -
his relationship with his family was second to the movement often. But I believe
the conviction of this man was unique and heroic in every sense. I believe it is
important to celebrate his activism and promotion of non-violence, his
perseverance and work ethic. He achieved a revolution of ideas and perceptions,"
Luna also decided to focus on a critical portion of Cesar Chavez's life,
rather than his entire existence - including the Delano march, the grape boycott
and his hunger strike. However, he didn't want to deify the man either.
"I think that film can best tell the story of a moment, a slice of someone's
life. For me it is unjust to try to depict in a film how someone is born, lives
and their trajectory through life until they die. There is just not enough time
and you end up simplifying a lot. It would be easy to make a film about Chavez,
to go for the romanticized angle in which he sacrifices everything. A part of
that is in the film, but for me the more important element is in what he awoke
in the community and this movie is also about everyone surrounding the struggle,
including the landowners. The hope was to be close to the characters, breathing
with them; to witness and testify to their experiences," Luna says.
Luna also hoped to show aspects of Chavez that were not necessarily as well
known but certainly informed his character and offered a glimpse into Cesar
Chavez the person as opposed to the icon.
"When you go into Cesar Chaves's office, you realize that there are cassettes
of the music he listened to - everyone imagined that he would have listened to
Mexican music from the 50s and 60s but the truth is that he liked jazz - John
Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. He listened to them for hours in his
car going back and forth from meetings and demonstrations. It's not that he
didn't listen to rancheras, but I loved that little detail and it was one of the
ways we hoped to represent a side of him that we are not often exposed to," Luna
Early on, producers John Malkovich, Lianne Halfon and Russ Smith, under their
Mr. Mudd production banner, also joined forces with Canana and collaborated with
Canana on further refining the script and casting the film. Mr. Mudd had
similarly produced the movie Abel with Canana, which Luna directed, although
their working relationship actually began on the stage.
"Diego came to us with this project, as he had with Abel. We met years ago
produced a play with them in Mexico which Diego acted in. We really enjoy
working with him and consider him to be very gifted and talented," Malkovich
"It is a great pleasure to work with Diego and Canana," Smith says.
"We had such an incredible experience with Mr. Mudd on Abel. They are a
reference for us regarding American independent films and incredibly supportive
partners," adds Cruz.
Participant Media and Pantelion also soon became affiliated with Cesar
Chavez. In fact, says Participant (title) and Cesar Chavez executive producer
Jonathan King, Participant Media had been "tracking the project for a while."
'It definitely became a priority when Diego came on board to direct. I had
met Pablo Cruz over the years and admired the movies Canana made. Our companies
have similar outlooks on the kind of movies we like to make and the filmmakers
we admire. We got to know them better through Canana partner Gael Garcia Bernal
on the (Academy Award nominated foreign film ) No (which starred Bernal) but
Cesar Chavez was the first time we had the opportunity to work together on a
movie they were making. We joined the team shortly before production started,
completing the financing and acquiring distribution rights jointly with
Pantelion," King explains.
Pantelion Films, the first major Latino Hollywood studio and the new face of
Hispanic entertainment, also seemed an obvious and likeminded ally.
"Pantelion was a natural partnership for a variety of reasons. For one,
they're the premiere distributor to the Latino market in the US. The company is
also a joint venture between Lionsgate and Televisa. Televisa is also an
investor in the movie and the distributor in Latino America. We had never worked
with them before and this seemed like perfect project," King says.
Obviously, casting the title role was critical and daunting. The role of the
legendary labor leader eventually went to Michael Pena.
"We did extensive casting for the role. And Michael did a pair of incredible
auditions. I think his reality is actually very close to Cesar's. He's born
here, first generation. His English is better than his Spanish," Luna observes.
Playing Chavez was an intensely personal experience for Pena that began the
day Luna contacted him about the part.
"I got an email that said Diego was directing a movie and was interested in
me for one of the roles. I asked what it was and they told me Cesar Chavez. I
couldn't believe it, especially when they told me they wanted me to play him.
Because my parents were farm workers in San Luis Potosi and Jalisco. We always
grew corn, cucumbers bell peppers, sometimes tomatoes. I felt really connected
to the material even though I didn't know much about him at the time. Then when
I read the script, I was really excited, it was fantastic. I remember telling my
dad, who is a really tough guy, that I would play Cesar Chavez and there was
about ten seconds of silence until is said 'Ta bonito' and then hung up. Now I
understand why he gets so emotional about Cesar Chavez. I'm sure my mom would
have been proud," Pena says.
Like Luna and Cruz, Pena thinks it is important to remind audiences of
"A lot of major cities have Cesar Chavez streets but not everyone knows his
story. I think it is important, especially since it is the largest non-violent
movement in the history of America - you'd think it would find its way into
classrooms and history books. Especially since it was such a huge thing to
demonstrate, how to get something done without killing or hurting anyone," Pena
To prepare for the role, Pena studied Chavez's cadence and speeches, in order
to reflect the sound of the times and, in particular, Chavez's soft-spoken but
firm oratory. For many Americans who came to know Chavez through radio and
television especially, his measured, calm but steadfast demeanor, coupled with
his candor and plain-spoken morality, played a big part in his ability to
successfully convey his message ("si se puede") to the world outside of
Pena even put on 30 pounds to play Cesar Chavez.
"I had just done End of Watch - Diego told me that Chavez did not look like
he worked out. He had a tummy and looked like a person less prone to violence,"
Pena explained. In other words, the polar opposite of the cop Pena played in End
of Watch. So, Pena would gain weight to play a man who also instigated one of
the most excruciating and infamous hunger strikes of all time.
After Pena signed on, the rest of the cast quickly followed.
America Ferrera plays Helen Chavez, Cesar's stalwart wife, who provided the
emotional support for him and for their family. The couple met when Helen was in
high school and worked side by side with her husband, starting in the early
1960s when he began organizing the field workers.
"I was excited to play Helen because she is not someone you ever hear much
about but she was a huge part of Cesar's ability to do what he did. She was one
of the very first - and in some of the interviews I have read, sometimes the
only person - to believe in Cesar and what he was trying to accomplish. Her role
was very much hands on in the union but also she supported Cesar when he was off
organizing for months and months. She was home working in the fields, literally
to feed their eight children. There were so many sacrifices she made for the
union, many of which were behind the scenes. Not many people know about them
apart from this film, so I was thrilled to be able to play that," she says.
The other redoubtable woman in Cesar's life was the celebrated activist
Dolores Huerta, portrayed by Rosario Dawson.
"It was amazing to play her. She is in her 80s and still petitioning and
organizing. She won the Medal of Freedom while we were shooting! I had the
opportunity to meet her a few times and work with her and see her in action.
That was really great because it gave a real emotional quality to everything
I've read about her. She was a teacher, she went to college and was a little bit
more middle class than everyone else in the movement. So there's an
understanding that she had options. Quitting her job and going into this kind of
work was not something she needed to do, it was clearly something she was
compelled to do. It was who she was," Dawson says.
Dawson adds that playing a real, living person - not to mention one as
legendary as Huerta - was a challenging, inspiring, occasionally terrifying
"It was a little scary, I've never played a real person before, especially
someone like Dolores, who is still alive and doing the work. Most of the time,
on a film, if the director is happy with my performance and I am, that's enough.
But this was different, since she is still so vital and it was really important
for me to portray that, to show her work and inspire more of it. I have so much
respect and admiration for her contributions and the sacrifices she made. It
meant so much to me when she gave me her blessing to play her. I can only
imagine if someone were making a life story about me, how insane
I'd get. But she was wonderful and talked me through her process and it was such
an honor to represent her," Dawson says.
Rounding out the cast is John Malkovich as Bogdonovitch, one of Cesar's
formidable grape- growing adversaries.
"He is a Croatian immigrant, and he feels that he built everything with his
own hands, his labor and sweat; nobody ever gave him anything. His view is: if
they don't want to pick grapes at that wage, they should leave, it's his farm,"
Malkovich's Bogdonovitch is a fictional, composite character who isn't a
Snidely Whiplash caricature - he has his reasons for opposing Chavez and, in
many ways, he is a throwback to an earlier time. Modern mores are swiftly
changing his world, in the form of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. In
a way, the Bogdonovitch role is an archetypal representative of all the growers
who challenged Chavez and his reforms.
"For me, it was the right decision to represent the growers in a fictional
character because it would be a mistake to say the resistance came from one farm
or one family. The growers colluded with each other to exploit the farm workers
and deny them benefits. It was an industry wide practice, so pinning it on one
person would not be accurate. I think they took the right kind of artistic
license here in showing the motivation of the growers, many of whom were
immigrants to California and the US themselves - and in so doing, the film is
able to combine their stories and information into one fictional character's
journey," says Jonathan King.
Pena was particularly thrilled to work with John Malkovich.
"Our cast is amazing but I was really excited and surprised that John was
going to be in it. We're both from Chicago. I hold him in the highest regard.
When I heard he would play the head grower, I was like, whoa! I couldn't believe
it. I've always wanted to work with him. I only have one line with him at the
end, but it's a good one!" Pena says.
Pena also gives Luna high marks.
"Working with Diego is always so cool. He doesn't just want to do what is on
the page; he sees the script as more of a blueprint. He always encouraged us to
find ways to make it more authentic, more personal. He's a director I've always
wanted to work with and we share similar aesthetics. In this film, I liked the
way he made it not just about the movement, but also about the man and his
family. He allowed us to explore what kind of
a person he was, his character, what about him led to the example he set, which
I think is important for people to see," Pena says.
Chavez's relationship with his family, Dawson says, reflects Luna's values
and his reasons for making the film, which she admires.
"I love that Diego is a family man and that is how he sees telling this
story. I think that will engage and hopefully inspire people to see how Cesar
and Dolores' work applies today. How important and radical and relevant it still
is - when I read the script, I thought, this is activism 101, it shows you how
to do it, a community coming together, poor people helping poor people, the
folks who normally get cut out of the process CHANGING it. You see in the film
that it's not overnight; it's not just one petition. It takes years and hard
work but it can be done. I think that's going to be really inspiring and
exciting for people to see that these are family people who don't have every
resource in the world but they do have each other. They're making it up as they
go along and it's exciting to see them struggle through it and still support
each other and make it happen. It doesn't feel out of reach or relegated to the
past, I hope it seems very present for audiences. Chavez wasn't a person who
wanted his name on a lot of boulevards. He didn't need to be recognized, he just
wanted the work done. These were not people out for glory, they were on a
mission to help their community, their family and it became something bigger.
And that's beautiful to me," Dawson says.
While the film is Luna's first English language project, ironically the
production shot in Hermosillo, Sonora. Mexico, primarily because the vineyards
there are more period-correct than any in California.
"We traveled all around California and nothing looks like it did in the 1960s
or 1970s. Sonora had the immense scale that central California had back in the
day, where you could look for miles in any direction and it felt endless," Luna
says. "If you visit California today, It has nothing to do with the California
where Cesar lived. The fields we found in Mexico were very similar to what would
have been in America in the 1970s," Luna says.
"There's a huge grape industry in Sonora," Pablo Cruz adds. "We decided on
our location because the valley is very simmilar to California, it almost an
extension of it. We had to shoot in April because we didn't want to wait another
year for grape season and
the state of Sonora supported us. So we went for it. The people were great and
the location was perfect but it was extremely hot and the level of our
production was immense. It was an unparalleled adventure."
Throughout the course of the shoot, Luna had to make creative decisions in
terms of how to interpret his Cesar Chavez.
"I knew the story I wanted to tell and there are multiple interpretations,
some contradictory and conflicting about him. There were points where I had to
exercise some creative license. This is the first time I have made a film about
a real person and I tried to be as true and honest as I could be based on the
family's notes and impressions," Luna explains.
While Luna dislikes calling Cesar Chavez a "message movie," he realizes that
there are lessons to be learned from Cesar Chavez's example that are universal.
"The idea that your problems are not only your own, that there are others
suffering the same thing, there is a reality you share with others.
Specifically, I don't believe know the power they can wield if they act
together. Part of what Cesar mastered was convincing people to lose their fear
of having a voice. In uniting and organizing, they could bring along an
indispensable, palpable change. Perhaps not for them but for the next
generation. By demanding an acknowledgement of their work, acting as a community
with one voice - they proved that voice could have tremendous power," Luna
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