The Triumphant, Interrupted Premiere of 'Cesar Chavez' in Ag Country

1,000 farmworkers gathered to watch the film on an outdoor screen at the historic UFW headquarters outside Delano, Calif.

(Photo: Courtesy Jocelyn Sherman)

Arron Shiver and Cheryl Nichols both act and write for film and television.

This particular stretch of Interstate 5, which starts just a little north of Los Angeles, is called the Grapevine, so named for its winding characteristics. Or the wild grapes that used to grow on the side of the road. Nobody really knows. What is growing at the moment, though, is the slow but inevitable line of traffic stretching back toward L.A. We are on our way north to a screening of the new film Cesar Chavez, stuck in the middle of the biggest traffic jam either one of us has ever seen. Barring a miracle, there’s no way we are going to make it.

The movie we missed is the directorial debut of actor Diego Luna and stars Michael Peña as Chavez and Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta. It is, of course, the life story of Cesar Estrada Chavez, a Mexican American farmworker who became one of the most famous and successful union organizers, community activists, and civil rights advocates in United States history.

We are at a dead stop somewhere near Pyramid Lake, still at least two hours from freedom, when we realize the movie has already begun. What’s special about this screening is that the filmmakers, in conjunction with the United Farm Workers, have bused in more than 1,000 migrant workers to see the film in an outdoor venue in the San Joaquin Valley town of Delano, Calif. The fields surrounding this ag community are where some of Chavez’s most significant battles took place, including a five-year strike–boycott culminating in the 1970 agreement between the UFW and the grape growers, which granted workers better pay, benefits, and other protections. 

Having been a farm laborer and observing firsthand the low wages, inhuman hours, and poor living standards that were a result of lax regulations and minimal union representation in that industry, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later joined with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to form what is now known as the United Farm Workers of America, or UFW. He encouraged the workers to organize, empowered them with his doctrine of nonviolent protest, and inspired them with his rousing rhetoric using simple phrases like “¡Si, se puede!” (which you might recognize as the 2008 chant of presidential nominee Barack Obama, “Yes, we can”), which sparked a movement and changed history.

The relevance of Chavez’s fight is not lost on the thousand faces illuminated by the outdoor film screen. The United States has always depended on the labor of migrant workers to fulfill its economic and agricultural needs. The railroads that stretch from coast to coast, the skyscrapers in the cities, the fields that feed the country—all are products of physical labor done by people willing to work for lower wages in exchange for opportunity. More than ever, our economy depends on the workers Chavez fought for. In 2010, migrant workers made up 16.4 percent of the labor force, an almost 12 percent increase over 1970’s 4.9 percent.

In 2011, Georgia lawmakers signed a bill, H.B. 87, that authorized police to demand “papers” demonstrating citizenship or immigration status during traffic stops, criminalized Georgians who interacted daily with undocumented individuals, and made it unjustifiably difficult for individuals without specific identification documents to access state facilities and services. The bill had immediate and dramatic consequences. Within days, the farmers, afraid of the legal penalties associated with hiring workers affected by H.B. 87, laid off or simply didn’t hire thousands of field hands. As a result, thousands of tons of unpicked blueberries and onions were left to rot in the fields, adding up to losses of approximately $80 million.

A similar bill, Alabama’s H.B. 56, passed on June 9, 2011, could ultimately shrink the state’s GDP by up to $10.8 billion, according to Prof. Samuel Addy at the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama.

Though the United States is dependent on migrant workers, without fair wages and safe work conditions, these laborers remain vulnerable. Cesar Chavez saw power in numbers, and though we aren’t there to witness it, at this moment, the movement is growing a thousand stronger. Paul Chavez, one of Chavez's sons, told the crowd, “This is the most meaningful showing for us. We're here seeing it with our brothers and sisters from the field, who this movie is all about."

We crawl up the black stripe of asphalt pounded into the spines of the steep mountain pitches like a lightning bolt. The end is in sight, but it is too late. As we roll past the cleanup crews and the police cars, almost deranged with curiosity after five hours at five miles per hour, the source of all this frustration is revealed: a 53-foot semitrailer ripped completely open by some other unseen truck. The contents of the container are spilled out like entrails onto the Grapevine: cases and cases, tons and tons...of fruit.

In another delicious twist of irony, the screening was ultimately interrupted because of rain, but the film is set to screen for labor communities in other parts of the state. 

Cesar Chavez debuts in theaters nationwide on March 28.

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is involved in the production and marketing of Cesar Chavez.

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