“We traveled around California and nothing looks like it did in the ’60s and ’70s,” Luna said. Sonora, which borders Arizona, “has the immensity of the fields that you saw in California, where you look forward, back, left, right, it doesn’t end. You feel you can feed the whole country.”
Cesar Chavez was born in Yuma, Ariz., in 1927 and moved with his parents and brother to California in 1938. The family worked in the fields of Central California as migrant farmers. Chavez’s formal education ended in the eighth grade. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, he befriended Fred Ross, a labor organizer who changed the course of his life.
Chavez joined Ross’ community service organization, started working on voter registration drives and in 1962 founded what would become the United Farm Workers. Through the grape boycotts, hunger strikes and a 340-mile march from Delano (near Bakersfield) to Sacramento, he drew global attention to the plight of farm workers, winning them improved living and working conditions, contracts and better pay.
The Canana crew constructed shacks to look like the miserable housing assigned to pickers in the 1960s and ‘70s and used a dusty 40-acre plot outside Hermosillo to represent the fields around Delano. In fact, the hot, sticky shooting at the Hermosillo library was easy compared to the work in the field, Luna and several actors said. Searing sun, dust storms, bugs, actors dropping from dehydration: great conditions for grapes maybe, not so much a film production.
“We ate so much dust in the last weeks,” Luna said.
Luna, Pearson and others involved in the production said they hoped to capture the best of Chavez’s legacy: his use of nonviolent protest to attempt to improve the plight of the downtrodden. They hope to educate younger generations, for whom “Cesar Chavez” may be little more than a name on a school or street.
The filmmakers said they showed every draft of the script to the Chavez family, incorporated many of the family’s numerous notes, anecdotes and comments, and enjoyed access to abundant archival material retained by the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
“I want them to be happy, pleased,” Luna said of Chavez’s descendants. “But we can deliver the film that we think is right. I hear the story from them, but it’s your angle. What mattered to me the most is … what connects to me.” In the end, he said, “it becomes a film that is directed by someone.”
Added Cruz: “This is the first time Chavez is portrayed on film. We are not making an expose.”
The film will also pay homage, Luna said, to those who worked with Chavez, his followers and community, and it will focus on the period surrounding the grape boycotts of the 1960s and ’70s, perhaps avoiding the later years of the United Farm Workers’ decline and what many contend was Chavez’s mismanagement.
The UFW today has lost most of the clout it obtained under Chavez. Its membership has plummeted, and it has allowed numerous contracts with growers to lapse. A new line of study now suggests Chavez might have inspired a movement but was unable to run a union.
“It’s about Cesar Chavez, but it is also the story of an event that changed the life of a community and the perception the country had of this community, the seed he planted in the community and how it spread and gave confidence to a community that had been invisible,” Luna said. “They found strength in their numbers and realized they could use their voice and … collapse an adversary.”