Later this month, the story of the late farm labor leader Cesar Chavez hits the silver screen with a biopic by acclaimed director Diego Luna. It’s the first time a major motion picture has been made about the life of the founder of the United Farm Workers Union. It features a cast of Hollywood stars including America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson and John Malkovich, with Michael Pena cast as the late civil rights hero. Tomorrow night President Obama will host a screening of the movie at the White House. It opens nationwide next Friday March 28th, and the UFW Foundation plans to host special fundraiser screenings in Bakersfield on March 29th and in Fresno on March 30th.
Q: Are you surprised that it’s taken this long for someone to make a film about Cesar Chavez?
I was shocked. When we opened our office here in LA and we were looking for stories, and what’s our next film and we realized that there was no film about Cesar Chavez we were shocked, a little irritated I have to say, because this is a country and an industry that celebrates every heroic story in cinema. And our community hasn’t been celebrated and definitely we wanted to change that.
Q: Here in Central California many of us are very familiar with the story of Cesar Chavez’s life and his organization of the United Farm Workers Union, but there is a generation, or maybe two generations of young people who maybe know the name but don’t know his story, or what he did. Do you think your movie can help to bring new context to the important role he played?
I really hope so, you know. I think I am in a way part of that generation in fact. I arrived in this country years ago with my work in Y Tu Mamá También, and I knew there was someone called Cesar Chavez who did something but I didn’t know what it meant or how important it was and the message that they sent. I found myself many times driving to an avenue called Cesar Chavez, looking at a mural in East LA of Cesar Chavez, but not actually knowing who he was, and what was behind his story. And I think through the film and through the whole research, I started to find out how important it is to tell this story because it is a story that can inspire young people, not just Latinos, but young people in this country that change is in our hands, that change happens just because we do get involved.
We’ve been showing the film to young audiences, people in high school, in college and their reaction is amazing. Many times we forget that by looking back, by looking and finding out where we come from we can understand who we are better. We tend just to try to reinvent the world always, but there are great examples from our past of how to do things. And these people send a beautiful message of change, of a non-violent movement of ideas as the main tool of change. And I think that’s very pertinent to today.
Q: As much as you focus on Cesar Chavez the civil rights icon you also focus in the movie on Cesar Chavez the man, the husband, the father. Tell me how you went approach approaching Cesar Chavez on the screen and what you saw in Michael Pena’s performance.
I don’t think film can be a history lesson. I think film should be an emotional experience that connects with everyone. I love film when film is universal. When it can reach someone who knows the context and feels the context, but also to those who don’t have an idea or a connection with it. To me, film becomes strong when you say, well, yes it is about the farmworker movement. It is about the fight in the fields back them, but in the end it’s just about a father and a son, you know? It’s about the sacrifice a father has to make to bring something better to five children, and that process of kids many times not understanding. The chance to find drama in this story is there, the universal drama that can reach anyone.
And the thing about working with Michael is I thought he was not just an amazing actor, but the best one to play this because his experience is very close to Cesar’s. He’s experience is very close to Cesar’s. He’s first generation, he was born in Chicago. But his father came across the border from Jalisco. He understands this feeling of duality, of being a first generation, of being in school and having to learn in English, but going back home and speaking Spanish as the main way to communicate with your parents. That comes from a place where you hear stories but you’re not allowed to go because there’s obviously a fear of not being able to come back. I thought he was the right actor. He understand the Mexican American experience pretty well.
Q: The rest of your cast did a fine job as well, with Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta and America Ferrera as Helen Chavez. Tell me about the performances and just working with these great actors. What do you think they brought to their characters in this biography?
In a way the two actresses you just mentioned are really close to their characters, you know. They’re activists, they’re very loud about what they believe in. When I sat down with Rosairo for a half-hour the first time when I wanted to tell her about the project and get to know her a little bit, she almost convinced me to sign for Vota Latino in that moment. And I realized I was in front of an organizer. She was perfectly right for the character for her. She has a little Dolores inside of her you know? So that happened to me with many of them.
Also all these actors, they understand the importance and the necessity of stories like this to be out. They live in an industry that is just a little, there’s very little options. And many times the characters that represent our community in this country are, they fall into these stereotypes, they’re very limited. And by sending the message to this country that their stories need to be out, their lives are also going to change. And you could tell they knew how important it was to celebrate our heroes and be part of this. As a director I’ve never has so much interest in actors coming to audition! Normally you have to convince actors to come and audition for you. This time we were receiving calls. Everyone wanted to be a part of this. Because it matters, and it’s time and they want it to grow.
Q: You mentioned the limited number of roles for Hispanic actors and actresses in Hollywood. Is that something that you hope to be a part of that change? I understand it was challenging at first to get the financing for this film but then things picked up. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about the role of Latinos in Hollywood today and what could be done to improve that.
I don’t know, but tell me who was the Latino presenting at the Oscars? There was none. The closest we got was Penelope Cruz who comes from Spain! I think this needs to change, obviously. I think this industry has to celebrate the Latino community and it has to understand that there’s an audience that wants to be represented you know, and things are changing very fast. And the community is becoming more and more complex. Now there is a fourth and fifth generation. It’s changing and we, and I’m talking about the ones making films, we have to understand that this is the moment to react and portray their stories and celebrate the heroes, our heroes.
Q: Obviously so many of the issues that this film deals with are still with us today. What do you think Cesar Chavez would say today about our broken immigration system and the challenges our country faces in trying to move forward? What do you think he would say today if he was with us?
I think he would try to organize as many people as he could in order to send a message that you cannot say you live in the land of freedom where more than 11 million people are working, feeding, building this country, making sure is America is what it is, and they’re not recognized. They’re not recognized, respected and celebrated. And that needs to change. It’s just unfair that those who are picking our food can barely feed their families.
Q: Was it challenging to focus on particular portion of Cesar Chavez’s life. The film is really set around 10 years surrounding the grape boycott in Delano in the 1960’s. How did you choose that and what was that process like in finding one area to focus on in this man’s amazing story?
I’ve always thought that it’s very unfair when you’re telling a story that actually happened, to pretend to tell the story of someone’s life in one hour and forty five minutes. In fact it’s already unfair to tell 10 years of the story of someone in an hour and forty five minutes but at least my goal was to use the boycott as the main message behind this film. Because, yeah, the film is about Cesar Chavez. But there’s something behind it and more important. Cesar wouldn’t be Cesar Chavez if it wasn’t for everyone around him. And Cesar wouldn’t be Cesar Chavez if this country wouldn’t have reacted to the call of farmworkers back then. So it’s about us consumers. It’s about the responsibility of being a citizen. And I think we need to remember that. We need to be reminded of that. The power of being a citizen you know? It comes with a responsibility. If we find a way to connect with others, as Cesar Chavez said, our strength is in our numbers. And I believe today there’s so many in the need of change, and there’s so many also that believe in change. We just have to organize. We just have to learn how to be heard. And yeah, that was the idea and that’s why I chose those ten years. And also again because I wanted to choose a film that could engage with an audience anywhere, not just those who care about the issues of farmworkers.