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Cesar Chavez: The Mexican-American Hero's Story Makes it to Hollywood

Photograph by Getty Images

Mexican director and actor Diego Luna recently took to Cesar Chavez Street in Austin, Texas, during the SXSW festival and asked pedestrians one single question: “Do you know who Cesar Chavez was?” The response? Only one lone passerby knew Chavez was a peaceful Chicano activist who helped unionize farm workers. This lack of knowledge about Chavez is exactly why Luna says he decided it was time to make a movie about this Latino figure who is an important part of American history.

“I was surprised that there was no film about Cesar Chavez,” says Luna about the subject of his directorial debut. “I was very shocked, in fact, and a little disappointed... and there was a little frustration—like, why aren't our stories out there?”

“Cesar Chavez,” which opens nationwide March 28, is Pantelion Film’s latest movie to open in the U.S. The biopic, directed by Luna, also stars Michael Peña as Chavez, America Ferrera as Helen Chavez, Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta and John Malkovich as Bogdanovich Senior. The film follows Chavez’s life for 10 years, a period during which he and his wife, Helen, Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla (played by Yancey Arias) worked toward better working conditions and fair pay, and ultimately unionizing farm workers.

Throughout the struggle in the film, the workers are met with violence, racism and more challenges—all of which Chavez fights, not with his fists, but with words and hitting the farm owners in their pockets with an organized grape boycott.

“My connection [to the film] is very simple. I think [Chavez] is a leader that sent a very nice and pertinent message to this country. A message of equality, of respect, of basic human rights,” says Luna, “and of a man who hasn't been celebrated the way he should be.”

Similar to Chavez, Luna is a man on a mission: To show American audiences that Latinos not only have stories to tell, but that we also want to see our stories being told and shared with the mainstream.

“If people go to the theaters ... to see Cesar Chavez, to get inspired by his story, to engage emotionally with the ride of these characters,” says Luna, “they’re going to be sending a clear message to this country: Our community needs to be celebrated in film, needs to be portrayed with the respect, complexity and cultural diversity that our community has.” Luna says Latinos can’t complain our stories aren’t being told if we don’t turn out to support the films that are being made about our community.

This sentiment is echoed by America Ferrera, who acknowledges that the entertainment industry is a business.

“In order for us to get to keep telling stories about Latinos, we have to prove that there is a market for them, that there is an audience for them, that there is a hunger and a demand in this country for these experiences to be shared,” says Ferrera.

According to Nielsen data released in 2013, Hispanics now represent 25 percent of moviegoers. The same report revealed 86 percent of Hispanics surveyed consider going to the movie theater an important way to spend time with family and friends, and 66 percent also said they were likely to spend time discussing movies after seeing them. Ferrera sees this data as a positive opportunity for the community.

“Latinos are the majority of moviegoers in this country," Ferrera says. "We're the ones buying the tickets to whatever big blockbuster is coming out, so it's incredibly important that we also use that buying power to advance our engagement in our community.”

Both Ferrera and Luna have hopes for future generations of Latinos who see this film to become inspired.

“I always feel that the most important message to leave young people with is to not fulfill their dreams, but, to create their dreams,” says Ferrera. “To not sit around and wait for someone else to find you and put you into a slot they have open ... to see themselves and all the labels not as limitations, but as assets.”

For Luna, it’s more personal. “Being a parent influences everything I do, not just in my work. Every day of my life, I think about [my kids],” says Luna. “They are part of every choice I make. This film, I made it for my son. He's 5 years old now, but one day he's going to want to look to material about where he comes from and what community he belongs to, and what happened in the past … I want him to be able to look at this story and find out that there was a guy called Cesar Chavez and that there was an amazing movement in the 60s and 70s and that, in fact, change is in our hands and he is capable of whatever he wants to do.”

Cesar Chavez is rated PG-13 and opens nationwide March 28. You can also help memorialize Cesar Chavez by signing a petition asking President Obama to create a National Day of Service on Cesar Chavez’s birthday.

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