When he first traveled to the United States, Diego Luna noticed the name on roads, schools and parks all over southern California: Cesar Chavez. He learned about the Mexican-American activist who founded the United Farm Workers union and was surprised to learn no one had made a movie about him.
That’s a big part of why Luna, who grew up in Mexico and has appeared in such films as Milk and Y Tu Mama Tambien, directed Cesar Chavez, which opens Friday.
“This is part of American history that needs to be celebrated,” he says. “People need to be recognized for the amazing work they did. It’s important because the struggle continues.”
Luna and America Ferrera, who plays Chavez’s wife Helen, were in Miami this week to talk about the film, which stars Michael Peña.
“His instinct was right,” says Luna of his leading man. “He understands the journey of a Mexican-American. He grew up in similar conditions to Chavez. His father was a farm worker. When he went to school, they wouldn’t allow him to speak Spanish. He was living in a country that reminds you that you don’t belong. It’s a complexity this character needed.”
Ferrera ( Ugly Betty) faced a different challenge: While Peña played a well-documented figure, Helen Chavez was more of an enigma. Luckily, Ferrera was able to sit down with her to chat.
“She’s 86 and very shy about talking to the press,” Ferrera says. “She told us a funny story about when Cesar was on Time magazine. They wanted to come to the house and do a photo shoot with her and the kids and make it about the family, but Helen said no. Cesar said, ‘But this is Time! They could be so helpful to the movement.’ But she put her foot down. She’s a woman who deeply values her privacy, so to get to spend an afternoon with her and share memories was really a gift.”
The challenges of making a biographical film about Chavez loomed large for Luna, particularly managing a storyline with many characters that spreads over almost an entire decade.
“There was so much in the life and so many details of the struggle and strategy that these guys put together that I had to leave out,” Luna laments. “I was in love with all these people. It was very painful to leave things out. We edited for a year; I have another two-hour film in the hard drive!” Expect more than a few trimmed scenes on the DVD.
“There was so much we learned, some of which we never got to shoot, and some that didn’t make the final edit,” Ferrera says, citing a plotline in which Chavez’s nephew dies in a car crash, a terrible tragedy for the family that somehow galvanized them anyway. “It was beautiful and moving and important, but you have to choose what makes sense in the story being told.”
And the story being told is what’s important, both agree.
“It’s incredibly important we don’t forget the heroes who have created change in really profound and nonviolent ways,” Ferrera says. “This is a story about social justice, about how we’re all connected to these issues. What Cesar did so wonderfully was build bridges between communities and show a housewife in the ’60s what her role in the struggle was. That’s relevant to the issues we struggle with today: immigration reform; health care reform. We want to put these issues in boxes, say, ‘That’s a Latino issue’ or ‘That’s a woman’s issue’ instead of of saying each one of us plays a role in all of these issues.”
“We have to actually realize that change is in our hands,” Luna says. “Change is possible if we get involved.”