Everyday people holding voter-registration drives, partnering with faith communities, organizing corporate campaigns and fasting in protest all may be so familiar that their revival by Cesar Chavez a generation ago is overlooked.
But such tactics worked – and helped inspire social-justice activists moved by the struggles of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and its skilled and charismatic leader to take their experience to other areas of public service.
Now the film “Cesar Chavez, An American Hero,” which opened in limited release last month, reminds us how this unassuming, dynamic personality led nonviolent demonstrations, marches, strikes and unprecedented l boycotts to achieve gains for farm workers.
Starring Michael Peña as César Chavez and Rosario Dawson as UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, the movie also features actor John Malkovich as a villain. Malkovich said he agreed to the role because he wanted to take part in telling an important story about fairness.
Fairness was a goal for the temporary farm workers who suffered from lousy working conditions plus racism and brutality at the hands of the employers and some locals, and the movie touches on several UFW campaigns: the Delano grape strike, the Salad Bowl strike, and the 1975 Modesto march.
Director Diego Luna said the motion picture is “the first major motion picture about an icon for Latinos in the United States. Yet by genuinely portraying Cesar Chavez as a hero for all Americans, it also tells a story every American should see.”
The movie is building an audience. Opening in just 664 U.S. theaters, “Cesar Chavez” reported $2.8 million over its three-day opening weekend, and has earned more than $5 million, according to box office reports.
Chavez, who died in 1993, was a significant public figure. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, with the Catholic Church’s "Peace on Earth" tribute, and the cover of Time magazine decades ago.
That significance also touched people who worked with him.
In downstate Illinois, State Sen. David Koehler (D-Peoria) is one of many alumni from Chavez’ and the UFW movement. In the 1970s, Koehler was a recently ordained pastor working with the UFW in Arizona, Ohio, California and New York. Koehler – who moved to Illinois to be a community organizer for Peoria’s Friendship House, then a County Board member, City Councilman and director of the Peoria Area Labor Management Council until his 2006 election to the Statehouse – acknowledges the UFW.
Koehler said, “One thing I learned in my time with the Farm Workers, and still hold dear, is the ongoing spirit of ‘si se puede’.”
Familiar now after having been appropriated by Barack Obama as a campaign slogan, “si se puede” was the UFW’s battle cry: “Yes, we can.”
Besides the movie, Chavez and his efforts are recounted in “Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, The UFW, and The Struggle for Justice in The 21st Century,” published six years ago. Part history and part guide, the book by Randy Shaw tracks how from the UFW’s 1962 inception, individuals armed with energy, determination and savvy methods changed workers’ lives and also their own.
Innovation and openness helped – along with Chavez’ reinvigoration of labor’s small-D democratic roots and the branches fed by coalition-building. Chavez enlisted the aid of labor stalwarts such as United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther and International Longshoremen head James Herman to expand their presence from farm fields to supermarkets. (Dockworkers refused to unload goods affected by the UFW’s disputes with growers.)
UFW was a school for activists, mirroring what Civil Rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had done in the 1960s. Chavez and the group of idealists he marshaled against overwhelming odds still offer lessons and provide examples we can appreciate, in memory and conversation, on the printed page, and now on the big screen.
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.