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Cinema in Focus: ‘Cesar Chavez’

When just wages and fair compensation are lacking, it takes a leader, the church and government coming together to solve it; here is a example in recent U.S. history

3 Stars — Thought-provoking

In the Bible, Mark records Jesus as saying: "A prophet is not without honor except in his own town." Understanding and accepting the prophetic words of those with whom we are familiar is a hard task, often provoking anger, and sometimes they are rejected or killed.

Modern prophetic voices, like Martin Luther King Jr., suffered martyrdom at an early age. So, too, the name of Cesar Chavez still provokes feelings of heroism or anger in the memories of those who surround the farming communities of California.

Cesar Chavez is a timely and engaging biography of a modern hero of the civil rights movement among the farmworkers of California's Central Valley.

Preceding only months before the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, a young Chavez (Michael Peña) moves his family from Los Angeles to Delano, Calif., to organize a union for farmworkers. Reared in the traditions of the Catholic worker movement and following in the footsteps of King's nonviolent approach to ridding the south of Jim Crow desegregation, Chavez challenges the long-standing practice of bringing workers from Mexico into the fields of California and paying them low wages and providing no health benefits, often leaving their families at the breaking point.

His approach gained national attention for its commitment to the dignity of all involved, workers and owners alike, while at the same time challenging workers to stop picking grapes until protections were in place to give them a living-wage and basic health protections. Like King's nonviolent approach, he gained the sympathetic ear of religious and political leaders, including Sen. Robert Kennedy, who like King was soon to become a victim of violence himself. When organizing alone couldn't change the growers' position, Chavez organized a grape boycott that stretched across the country, and eventually to England. It was the economic impact of the boycott that eventually brought the farm owners to the bargaining table.

The facts of Chavez's movement are well known and movingly displayed in this film, but the additional focus on Chavez's family and the impact that the movement had on them is particularly touching. Chavez could not have done what he did without the support of his wife, but the toll it took on his oldest son is particularly revealing.

The change that the farmworkers movement brought about in the mid-20th century transformed the world of not only those from Latin America, but also other ethnic groups including Filipinos who joined Chavez in his early attempts to form a union. That transformation did end the debate, though, and the film Cesar Chavez reopens the volatility apparent in the discussions today about immigration reform.

It is worth noting that Cesar Chavez is directed by the rising star of the Mexican film world, Diego Luna, and that the star of the film, Peña, witnessed firsthand his own parents being deported from the United States when he was a child.

The issues raised in Cesar Chavez from 40 years ago are again reaching a boiling point in the cultural, religious and political debates going on across America today. We may be living in a time when another prophetic voice will need to surface — and hopefully embrace the moral imperative of non-violence and respect for one another gained by those who went before us. Cesar Chavez is a good first start in understanding this struggle.


» The ability to make a major social change requires a special person. What do you identify in Cesar that made him successful?

» Why do you think immigration is such a volatile issue today? What do you think will be the best solution?

» What has been your experience with government responding to moral issues?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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