(Guest Post by John Byrne Barry, author of Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.)
The day before celebrating the holiday commemorating Cesar Chavez, my wife and I watched the recently released movie about his life. We were staying the weekend up in Guerneville, but the rain was relentless, so we drove to Santa Rosa to catch an afternoon showing. On the way, we passed rolling hills of vineyards, where another generation of farm workers toil for low wages and under wretched conditions. (Though we didn’t see any. It was Sunday and pouring.)
I enjoyed the film, but it could have been so much better. The acting was fine — Michael Pena plays Cesar Chavez, who was not a remarkable orator or a big, charismatic personality, in a resolute, understated way, and America Ferrara turns in a bravura performance as his wife Helen, who was more instrumental in the farm workers’ struggle than I realized.
My biggest problem was the film’s reliance on the “great man” theory of history, common to so many biopics. Yes, Cesar Chavez was extremely influential as a leader, but he didn’t do it himself. Many people whose names we don’t know played huge roles in that movement. Some, like Dolores Huerta and Fred Ross, Sr., had small roles. Huerta, played by the beautiful Rosario Dawson, is portrayed as little more than a secretary. Others, like UFW organizing director Marshall Ganz—now a Harvard professor, influential in the Obama campaign of 2008, among other things—were not even included.
John Malkovich is delicious as a vineyard owner who wants to crush the union. But he’s not the stereotypical villain, rubbing his hands together in glee. Because he’s also an immigrant, from Croatia, and he’s worked hard to get to where he is, he feels put upon by the boycott, which devastated his business.
Because I’ve worked as an organizer, I’ve heard one particular line attributed to Cesar Chavez hundreds of times. When asked his secret of organizing, he famously said, “First you talk to one person, then you talk to another, then you talk to another.” The film didn’t really show that. They showed him fasting, giving speeches, struggling with his teenage son Fernando. But they could have shown more of him persuading people one on one.
I would still heartily recommend the movie though. It’s an important story, and I learned a lot I didn’t know. (Plus, it motivated me to do some browsing on the web afterwards to fill in the gaps.)
The film did a good job of showing Chavez’ commitment to nonviolence, especially in the face of impatience from people within the movement, some of whom argued for fighting back, who said not doing so was cowardice. But Chavez, following in the militant nonviolent tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., successfully held his ground. Following the example of Gandhi, he also fasted — for 25 days — to make the case for nonviolence. And it worked.
Central to the farm workers struggle was the the strategy of persuading consumers to boycott table grapes in order to support the farm workers’ strike, arguably the most successful consumer boycott in U.S. history. A big part of why I enjoyed the movie is that I was unwittingly part of that boycott. My parents didn’t buy grapes. For what seemed like my whole childhood. I’m not sure how they found out about the boycott, though my guess is their church.
They showed some of the farm workers fanning out to supermarkets with flyers and telling people about the boycott, but there wasn’t much in the way of context. This was the late 1960s, a time of great change, with the civil rights movement and the women’s movement blooming, and, of course, the U.S. labor movement was stronger than it is today.
One element of the boycott story that was new to me was the role of President Richard Nixon, who vowed to break it by buying up half the unsold grapes to feed to U.S. soldiers, and helping growers export the other half to Europe. In response, Chavez and other UFW leaders, some of whom had never traveled before, went to Europe to meet with labor leaders, church groups, and gained enough international solidarity that the grape export plan was never fully realized. Dock workers in England refused to unload the grapes, dumping them off the ship like the early Americans did with tea in Boston Harbor.
In that respect, the movie’s core message was on target. It wasn’t just one man who made the difference, but a worldwide movement.